Volunteers participate in the deer drive at Woodend sanctuary in Chevy Chase. Credit: Ben Israel

The deer that once inhabited the Audubon Naturalist Society’s nature sanctuary in Chevy Chase will have to find a new place to munch on undergrowth.

Over the weekend, a band of about 115 volunteers marched the deer right out of a 33-acre section of the Woodend sanctuary and closed the gate behind them. Now, the holly tree sapling that the society’s executive director spotted growing on the property has a fighting chance, she says.

“Coming to work, this is the first morning that there are no four-hooved lawnmowers mowing down the plants at Woodend,” Lisa Alexander, the society’s executive director, said Monday.

Sunday’s undertaking was a step in restoring the property ecosystem from years of deer damage. The society has counted up to 29 deer grazing on the 40-acre property at a time, about 28 more than the environment can support, according to a news release.

Alexander said the native plant communities on the site have been devastated by all of the snacking—there are only a couple of goldenrod patches left—and the population of frogs and salamanders has declined. Invasive plants such as bamboo and Asian honeysuckle have taken over the shrub layer in the forest, and European grasses have supplanted native species in the meadows.

Alexander said the restoration effort began about three years ago and has involved a project to build almost a mile of fencing around a 33-acre section of Woodend. The fencing is 10 feet high around Jones Mill Road and Brierly Road and eight feet tall in areas running past neighboring properties. Some nearby residents were unhappy with the new fencing, but Alexander said most seemed supportive of the society’s efforts to rehabilitate their property.

Once the new barrier was in place, the society was ready to expel the deer from the enclosed area and herd them across Jones Mill Road to a seven-acre section of the preserve. This part of the society’s property connects to Rock Creek Park, where parks officials have authority to control the deer population.

Getting the deer there was quite a logistical operation, but Alexander said the society developed their plan by studying successful deer drives at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and the Pope Farm Nursery in Gaithersburg.

On Sunday, more than 100 volunteers arrived at Woodend before 7 a.m. and, after completing their safety training, lined up against the west side of the fence. The volunteers plodded across the snowy sanctuary in 12 teams, guiding the deer toward the gate that would lead them out of the fenced-in area.

Police officers were on hand to direct traffic at Jones Mill Road when the deer were crossing, Alexander said.

“It was a gentle and quiet morning,” Alexander said. “We had to walk slowly because the terrain was wooded and meadowed. The idea was not to harm the deer in any way and not to scare the deer.”

In the first pass, the group managed to direct 10 deer out of the enclosure, but one deer remained after darting through a gap in the line of volunteers, Alexander said. The volunteers took a break and drank hot chocolate and coffee before heading back outside for a second pass, this time steering the straggler through the gate.

The last deer remaining in the 33-acre section of the sanctuary was removed during the volunteers’ second pass across the property. Credit: Ben Israel.

The whole process wrapped up at around 10:30 a.m., Alexander said.

Now, Alexander said, the society can plant new trees on sanctuary areas and work on restoring some of the wetland areas.

“But I’m just as interested to see what Mother Nature does on her own,” she said.

The society hopes to see the sanctuary recover and act as a destination where children can explore the natural world and residents and community members can learn about green practices, she said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.