Hunters have long known that some of Allegheny County's biggest deer and best racks were out of reach on property managed by Pittsburgh International Airport.
For some, those big bucks may soon be within their sights.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority recently announced the launch of a limited archery-only hunt on 2,362 acres of county land leased by the airport.
Through a lottery system run by the authority, 157 archers will be issued special hunting and parking permits for the Oct. 5 to Jan. 11 hunt on airport properties west of Business Route 376 in Findlay. Access will continue to be denied on some 7,000 acres of airport land nearer the runways between Interstate 376 and Business Route 376. A general hunting license, archery permit and, if the archer desires, county-issued antlerless deer permits will be required. No firearms will be permitted. State hunting regulations apply.
"It was an interest in doing something for the community, to allow them to partake in a hunt," said Kurt Sopp, Airport Authority training and security director. "The reason for opening hunting wasn't a need to reduce the deer herd."
Wildlife Conservation Officer Gary Fujak of the state Game Commission isn't so sure.
The land included in the lottery had been open to public hunting until 2008, when it was posted by the Airport Authority. In general, the Game Commission supports the opening of more land for hunters. But Mr. Fujak, whose western Allegheny County jurisdiction includes the airport area, said the authority did a poor job of managing the deer after it posted the 2,000 acres, throwing the region's whitetail population out of control.
"The airport has won a PR campaign here with throwing a bone to hunters," he said. "But the truth is they've been mismanaging the deer population for years."
Far from pristine, the undeveloped woodlands of Findlay grew out of clear-cut forests and feral farmlands. Wildlife in those man-made habitats cannot manage itself -- it requires stewardship. An ecological keystone species, white-tail deer eat about 1 ton of flora per deer per year. Most does are impregnated in their first year, and give birth to one to three fawns every year. Biologists know that if you control the does, you've controlled the deer; control the deer and you've managed the food and shelter used by all of the area's wildlife. And for airports, wildlife control is vital.
"Deer density in the airport area is out of control, and it's because the population is not being kept in check on airport property," Mr. Fujak said. "I see it every day. You've got complaints from landowners, crop losses from farms near the airport, road kills. The best tool we've got to control deer is public hunting, and that's not happening on areas of the airport where hunting could be done safely and effectively."
At two public meetings in the last year, hunters bristled over allegations that airport employees are quietly permitted to archery hunt on airport property, often taking out huge trophy bucks which contributes little to controlling the population.
"It doesn't seem fair," said Steve MacBride, owner of The Archer's Edge archery shop in Oakdale. "I can understand security concerns, particularly after 9/11. But it's county property -- we all kind of own the airport. [Employees] are coming out of there with trophy racks."
Brad Penrod, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said hunting by staff inside the perimeter is part of routine airport wildlife control, which includes a U.S. Department of Agriculture deer culling operation.
"Some staff are allowed in there as part of our wildlife management plan," he said. "They have security clearance and training to drive on runways, and we keep it to about 15 people."
A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said the Airport Authority was given approval for the lottery hunting program. There is no airport deer density estimate, but an FAA wildlife strike database shows there have been no aircraft-deer collisions at Pittsburgh International Airport for at least five years.
Special crop plantings, sound-making devices and fences are used to keep wildlife away from runway areas, and with authorization granted through a Game Commission permit the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely culls deer at the airport.
USDA spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said the department was consulted and approved the lottery hunting program. Ongoing USDA culling operations inside the Route 376 beltway, however, are not recreational hunts, she said. Unlike airport staff, the USDA sharpshooters use firearms to remove all deer from runway areas.
"It isn't totally unusual for airports to allow staff members who have already gone through the security process to do some deer hunting on airport property," she said.
But Mr. MacBride and many hunters from the area question whether airport staff are removing does for wildlife management or targeting big bucks for recreation.
"That's the problem," said Mr. Fujak. "If this is deer management, it's all being done wrong. The lottery doesn't require hunters to remove the does that control the population. And inside the beltway, I don't think they're just taking out does. And look, all around the airport there are too many deer."
Airport archery lottery rules and an application are posted at www.flypittsburgh.com/archery. Applications are accepted through Sept. 22, with a drawing Sept. 25.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.