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City calls deer management pilot program a success | The Homepage

Hunters killed 108 deer in two parks in a pilot that the Gainey administration hopes to expand into five parks and beyond in coming years

By Juliet Martinez, managing editor

A buck searches for food in Riverview Park on the North Side, one of two parks where the hunting pilot took place. Photo courtesy of The Northside Chronicle

Some days, life in Pittsburgh feels like a scene in a Disney movie where docile forest creatures mingle with human neighbors.

But when a deer has eaten the food growing in your garden or made you crash your car, it feels a bit less magical.

In response to resident complaints, Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration introduced a pilot program last September to hunt deer in Frick and Riverview parks from October to January. In April, the city hailed the program as a success in a report saying it reduced the deer population by 108 without safety incidents, and the venison donated to food banks fed more than 9,000 people.

The city is now looking to expand the program into Schenley, Emerald View and Highland parks, with possible eventual expansion into Hays and the greenways. But more could be needed to bring deer into balance with Pittsburgh’s urban forest ecosystems.

Doubling every two years

The deer problem has gotten worse. At a debriefing on April 2, senior park ranger Erica Heide said with abundant food and no natural predators the deer population is doubling every two years. One sign of growth is the frequency of deer-vehicle collisions. In 2018 and 2019, Pittsburgh Animal Care and Control picked up around 300 deer carcasses hit by a vehicle per year. In both 2020 and 2021, that number rose to over 500.

Collisions with deer in Pittsburgh cause several million dollars in damage every year, said professor Jeremy Weber from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, at the April 2 meeting.

Deer overpopulation affects entire forests as well. Brandon McCracken, senior program manager for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said spending money on planting trees could become unnecessary if deer populations were under control.

Deer destroy new tree growth by eating young trees, and by rubbing their antlers against the bark of larger ones. When reforestation crews plant trees in the parks, they surround them with wire fencing and “tree tubes” to protect them from deer. But with a little help, he said, nature can take over and the trees regrow by themselves.

As they do, the trees and understory plants can slow and absorb surface stormwater runoff and reduce flooding, said Caitlin Mitchell, program assistant at Watersheds of South Pittsburgh.

A promising start

The city’s report said the “historically ... unchecked and unmanaged” deer population has led to “increasing reports of deer over browsing, vehicle-deer collisions, and loss of natural fear.”

City council approved the archery hunting program on Sept. 6 with input from and in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services team.

The announcement received an enthusiastic response from local bow hunters. In two days, 236 applied, according to an email from Maria Montaño, Mayor Gainey’s press secretary. On Sept. 7, 30 archers and 30 alternates were chosen by lottery. Those who passed the criminal background check progressed to the accuracy test. They had to hit the vital organs region of three targets at unknown distances.

The pilot allowed hunting from Monday to Saturday between Sept. 30 and Dec. 9, and Dec. 26 through Jan. 27. Each hunter was assigned a specific area to set up a tree stand. They had to take a doe first and donate it to a food-sharing program like Hunters Sharing the Harvest. Hunters were not allowed to skin or gut the deer onsite because park visitors might find it disturbing.

Hunters had to report the results of their hunts to a website within 24 hours; those who killed more than two deer from their assigned areas were invited back for future seasons.

In total, archers donated 59 of the 108 deer they shot to food banks. The donations added up to 2,360 pounds of venison or 9,440 meals.

The report touted the program’s engagement of authorized, vetted and accuracy-tested archers, 19 of whom were Pittsburgh residents.

The program made food available to the hunters and to food-insecure people through the donation program. The hunters’ evaluations indicated most of them wanted to participate again.

The report listed among the positives the potential reduced risk of vehicle collisions with deer and possible reduction in tick-borne illnesses. The deer themselves can also benefit from the program because of lower competition for food. And sparser herds are less likely to spread chronic wasting and other diseases.

Future improvements mentioned in the report include setting a minimum age of 18 for the archers and capping the number of archers per park at 10. Other possible improvements reflect feedback from the hunters, such as identifying local butchering options to make donations easier and faster.

USDA wildlife technician Thomas Wilson praised the program’s safety at the April 2 meeting. The archers spent 820 hours in the woods and there were no reported safety incidents, he said.

Is bow hunting enough?

Whitetail deer are a native species and an important part of the local ecosystem. But their overpopulation is damaging their habitat. Reducing their numbers should bring them back into balance.

The group Friends of Riverview Park is advocating for areas of the parks to be fenced off from deer, allowing the city to track how much more balanced the ecosystem becomes by comparing forest regrowth with and without deer, according to member Alison Keating.

The city is measuring success by how much they can lower the number of deer carcasses on local roads. But hunting alone may not be enough to move that needle.

“Based on what we’ve learned from other cities, the archery program alone won’t be able to be able to bring it back into balance,” said Martha Isler, president of the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition during an April 10 phone call. The nonprofit resolved in October 2022 to learn as much as possible about the deer problem and its effects on the parks and community. They also joined forces with Friends of Riverview Park to lobby the city for a deer management program.

“Other cities that have gotten their deer populations back into balance have used a targeted sharpshooting program,” she said. Female deer can reproduce at six months old, and as many as 85% of them will give birth to twins or triplets. “Archers can’t get ahead of that curve.”

Public safety director Lee Schmidt said at the April 2 meeting that targeted sharpshooting would involve qualified, insured sharpshooters hunting at night from a clearly labeled truck. Each shooter would be accompanied by a spotter to watch for people or pets.

Ms. Isler said many cities with successful deer management programs use sharpshooters for a limited time to get the population down to a level manageable by archers.

For example, Cincinnati used this approach in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2019, removing 317 deer in all, with the highest numbers in 2007.

The average cost is around $600 per deer removed.

Other options include doing nothing, which Pittsburgh was trying until last fall. Sterilizing deer is illegal in Pennsylvania, not to mention extremely costly. Building fences to keep deer out of certain areas is another option that can help some areas recover.

Ms. Keating wrote that when considering these options, the focus should be on “what works, do residents support it, and can we afford it?”

If other options must be pursued, Pittsburgh still has ample land for hunting, she wrote, so sharpshooting should be used as little as possible.

“Why should the City pay for something that our own (and some nearby) residents are happy to do safely and legally, if we give them the chance?” she wrote.

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