City weighs bowhunting program to cull deer population
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey is sending a forceful message Tuesday morning: The buck stops here.
The administration has submitted legislation to city council that would establish a pilot program for controlled bowhunting in two city parks. It’s an effort to rein in a deer population whose growth is harming parks and aggravating residents who live near them.
The administration also hopes council will expedite approval of the plan in order to begin the program in time for the fall’ hunting season.
The number of deer, said mayoral spokesperson Maria Montano, “is bad for the parks, but it’s also bad for the deer themselves. There isn’t enough food to sustain them, and they are causing long-term damage — eating saplings before they take root. We’re seeing soil erosion and soil destabilization, and it has an impact on our ability to control landslides.”
Two bills will be taken up by council after their introduction Tuesday morning. One will amend a city law that currently prevents anyone from hunting or trapping in city parks: New language will make an exception allowing the city’s public safety director to “grant permission to individuals and/or professional groups to discharge a bow and arrow in conjunction with participating in a deer management program.”
The second piece of legislation enables the city to contract with the US Department of Agriculture to take part in such an effort.
Montano said the hunt will unfold in two phases. The city will allow up to 30 eligible bowhunters who pass a skills test to take part in a one-day hunt in Frick and Riverview parks. (Individual hunters will be required to take a doe first, Montano said, and donate the meat to a food bank: Deer must be dressed off-site rather than in the parks themselves.) A USDA team will then deploy its own team of hunters, at a cost to the city of slightly more than $10,000.
This fall’s hunt will serve as a pilot program, one that may lay the groundwork for a more extensive hunt next fall.
Montano said a cull is necessary because “the size of the population is beyond the point where birth-control methods would be effective.” And she noted that “municipalities around the city already have deer-management programs, while the city does not.”
The legislation says the USDA has determined that there are an average of 51 deer per square mile of city parkland. The agency estimates that “deer densities of 10 deer per square mile or fewer are typically appropriate.”
Supporters of the program say efforts to restore some balance in the deer population are long overdue. Among other things, deer carry ticks that can spread Lyme disease, a debilitating bacterial infection.
“It’s really gone beyond the parks at this point,” said City Councilor Barb Warwick, whose district borders Schenley Park. “Anyone living adjacent to the larger parks can tell you the deer are in the streets, in their gardens — they’re everywhere. Someone sent me a picture of a fawn whose mother left her behind the tire of her car.
“This should probably have been dealt with 10 years ago but wasn’t,” Warwick added. “So here we are.”
Warwick said she’d been hearing complaints about deer since she first ran for council last year.
“It was the No. 1 thing I heard over and over,” she said. “I get two or three calls a week about it.”
The deer also are a concern for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit agency that works in the city’s parks.
“An increase in deer in our local parks can have severe and long-lasting impacts on our urban forest’s ecosystem,” said conservancy spokesperson Alana Wenk. Deer browsing for food damages young saplings and limits a forest’s ability to replace trees as they age and die.
As for culling deer, Wenk said, “We defer to city leadership on their efforts to reduce rising deer populations in Pittsburgh's green spaces.” She noted the conservancy already “put[s] significant effort into protecting parks and green spaces from the effects of increasing populations of deer.” Those steps include planting species deer don’t like, as well as creating “exclosures” that keep deer away from young trees.
In fact, in a podcast last year, a conservancy staffer called the deer “public enemy No. 1” when it came to the health of city parks.
“The deer, while we love seeing them, are voracious browsers,” said Robin Eng, then the conservancy's ecological projects manager. They eat saplings and native species, with the result that “we end up with forests that are just the big trees,” with no up-and-coming trees to replace them. Instead, the land fills up with invasive species that deer don’t eat.
Such concerns may be especially pressing in Riverview Park, where some suspect that deer herds combine with other phenomena — such as unstable local geology and an invasive species of “jumping earthworm” that changes soil composition — to worsen landslide risks.
"Ever since I took office, the advocates for the park have expressed that the deer have been an issue that cause several problems in and around the park,” said Bobby Wilson, the city councilor whose district includes Riverview. As the bills come to the table, he said, “I’m interested to get to the bottom of what the deer are actually responsible for."
It remains to be seen how much discussion the issue gets. The administration is asking council to waive its usual legislative process for an accelerated approach that could result in approval of the pilot program as early as next Tuesday. That would allow the city to deploy bowhunters after the archery season for deer gets underway, which in Allegheny County will be next month.
“That gives us a very small window to get this up and running,” said Warwick. If the process stalls, the city may have to wait another year to implement its plans.
Efforts to rein in wildlife are often controversial. In the mid-2010s, a proposal to cull the deer population in Mt. Lebanon divided the community for months. A decade before that, feathers flew when former county executive Dan Onorato’s administration had nearly 300 geese killed in an effort to remove them from North Park: At one point, protesters held a demonstration at his church.
Officials are hoping to avoid controversy this time around.
“We’ve had a variety of conversations with local animal groups to talk through the challenges,” said Montano. “We start talking about how this is unsustainable for the deer themselves, for trees and for other species as well. This is the reality of where we’re at.”