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Sharpshooters to renew deer cull in heart of Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sharpshooters will renew culling the white-tailed deer population, growing fast in the heart of the U.S. capital, as early as Thursday night, the National Park Service said.

The nighttime hunts by Department of Agriculture shooters in Washington's Rock Creek Park will continue until March 31, or until 106 deer have been killed, said Nick Bartolomeo, the park's chief of resources management.

The general public should remain out of harm's way because joggers and cyclists are generally barred from the park after dark, according to the park service.

The sharpshooters will deploy on unspecified nights as early as Thursday, when the 12-mile-long (19-km-long) park is normally closed. Park roads will also be temporarily closed as a safety precaution.

The three-year program is aimed at reducing the deer population to 15 to 20 per square mile (six to eight per square km) from 77 per square mile (31 per square km), Bartolomeo said during a conference call with reporters.

The first cull took place in March 2013, when 20 deer were killed in one night, he said.

The number of deer has soared in the last 20 years, with the animals eating nearly all the park's tree seedlings and preventing the forest from growing, according to a statement from the Park Service.

"There are no historic records of a white-tailed deer population in Rock Creek Park before 1960," said Park Superintendent Tara Morrison.

The deer meat will be donated to food banks and organizations for the homeless.

The number of U.S. white-tailed deer has exploded from a few hundred thousand in the 1930s to an estimated 30 million presently. The growth has been blamed on a lack of predators and growth of deer-friendly residential areas outside cities.

(Reporting by Lacey Johnson; Editing by Ian Simpson and Gunna Dickson)

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