Pittsburgh's suburbs a perfect sanctuary for deer

Even within the city limits, it's a whitetail oasis


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On a hill above North Park Lake, chain-link fences enclose several small plots barely big enough to park a car. Inside, saplings reach for sunlight above leafy bushes and new plants push through the leaf-covered ground. Outside the fences, foliage is sparse -- some spots are nearly barren.

They're not garden plots. They're deer exclosures, placed there by state Game Commission Wildlife Conservation officer Gary Fujak as a wildlife management demonstration.

The exclosures are there for "anyone who wants [to] see what this park would look like if it weren't for all the deer," he said.

Beautiful and majestic, white-tailed deer can also be gluttonous. During their hormonally imbalanced mating period, they're reckless. With few population controls throughout the southwestern Pennsylvania suburbs and Pittsburgh, their numbers in some communities have soared to unmanageable levels. From Monroeville to Bridgeville, from Wexford to Washington, deer can be a backyard and agricultural nuisance. In parts of Pittsburgh and municipalities including Mt. Lebanon, Ross, Green Tree and Franklin Park, they're a legitimate public safety hazard.

The statewide archery deer season is now in full swing and the firearm deer season opens Dec. 2, but the Game Commission concedes that recreational hunting alone cannot control urban deer. While a few communities are taking action, most do nothing about their deer problems because of what some have described as a lack of education and political will.

In Pennsylvania's natural forests, before European immigration, the sky-high foliage of 200-year-old trees blocked sunlight from reaching ground-level vegetation, and there were far fewer deer. Now, with no natural predators capable of taking down a mature deer, whitetails thrive among the suburbs' clear-cut farms, young second-growth woodlands and landscaped residential areas.

White-tailed deer hold a unique place in the state's ecology. A 150-pound deer eats 10 to 12 pounds of vegetation every day, or more than 1 ton of shoots, twigs, leaves, weeds and other flora per year, out-competing other animals for food and destroying the habitat in which they live. Many areas are stressed from the ground to the 5-foot browse line, as demonstrated in the North Park exclosures.

Each doe reaches sexual maturity in one year and almost all breed, often bearing twins and sometimes triplets. Deer populations are controlled by controlling the does.

Deer double, problems double

Unchecked, deer density doubles every two years, and deer-related problems abound. Forest regeneration stops, agricultural and landscape damage increases and humans risk contracting Lyme disease carried by deer-borne ticks. State Farm insurance reported about 115,000 deer-car collisions in Pennsylvania last year, causing nearly $400 million in damage. Fourteen people died and 1,352 were injured in deer-related traffic accidents.

The Game Commission has sole authority to manage Pennsylvania wildlife and does it with no revenue from local or state tax dollars. The agency is funded almost exclusively by its users through license fees, commercial leases and federal excise taxes on hunting equipment.

The manipulation of hunting seasons is a major tool used to control deer. But biologist Chris Rosenberry, the agency's deer and elk section supervisor, said the suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh have become "sanctuaries" where deer populations grow unchecked.

"It's a refuge effect in developed areas -- chunks of land that cannot be hunted for safety reasons ... or where landowners don't want hunting to occur," he said.

Special authorization is required to remove deer in ways that exceed hunting regulations, and municipalities can request help from the Game Commission in managing problem deer.

"If money weren't an object, there would be other ways to control deer," Mr. Rosenberry said. "But relocating that many wild deer is financially impossible, and the science just isn't there for chemical solutions."

Two wildlife contraception products are sold. The porcine zona pellucida vaccine, PZP, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and no state wildlife management agency approves its use on free-roaming deer. A hormone developed by the Agriculture Department, GonaCon, has shown promise, but the agency's literature concedes major limitations, including the need to capture and inject every doe every year, which cannot be done in the wild.

Allegheny County manages deer in its nine parks with the help of a nonprofit archers' group that discreetly removes does during archery deer season. With self-imposed rules that exceed game-law requirements and a perfect safety record since its founding in 1996, Whitetail Management Associates of Greater Pittsburgh quietly removes about 600 deer from the county's parks per year. The service is provided at no cost to taxpayers, and most of the venison is donated to local food banks.

"We get local hunters and train them to do it the right way," said founder and manager Joe McCluskey, 61, of Cheswick, a champion archer with two world titles and several national awards.

But Mr. McCluskey said the association should be considered "one part of a larger deer management program," which often is not the case. In North Park, the group removes 100 deer per year, but it's not enough. In fields surrounding the lake and in the wooded hills near the deer exclosures, budding plants are nipped to the ground.

"If you're having a deer program to help regeneration, it's not happening," said Mr. Fujak, addressing a meeting of Friends of North Park in October. "If you want to see regeneration in the park, you're going to have to kill more deer or fence off some areas. ... If Friends of North Park wants there to be plants in the park, you're going to have to do something to reduce the deer or you're not going to have a park."

Some communities are addressing their deer problems. In 2008, Mt. Lebanon ended a successful program in which the Agriculture Department was paid to send sharpshooters to cull deer in problem areas. Public works director Tom Kelly said when that program ended, the deer came back.

"If anything, there was an increase in the number of deer incidents," he said. "Police tracked more detailed information on deer incidents -- dead deer removed from the road, accidents, complaints."

Since then, Mt. Lebanon passed an ordinance prohibiting the intentional feeding of deer, which Mr. Kelly called "a first step" in a more robust management strategy. Whitetail Management has been consulted (Mr. McCluskey said the group is not taking new assignments), and officials have spoken with an out-of-state nonprofit archery group, White Buffalo Inc.

Deer experts said a new program that allows archers back into non-runway areas of Pittsburgh International Airport, after several years of posting, is not likely to help control deer in Findlay. With no requirement that density-controlling does must be targeted, early reports indicate hunters are dragging out big racks. Does will be impregnated by other bucks, resulting in marginal impact on the deer population.

Deer management spotty

Throughout the region, municipal deer management is spotty. Monroeville's deer control permit authorizing culling hasn't been renewed in years. Upper St. Clair has done a good job of controlling its deer, and Fox Chapel uses a combination of controlled hunts and culls. Green Tree needs a deer plan badly, Mr. Fujak said, but has no program.

Scott and Ross have tried but failed to address their deer density issues -- Ross commissioners voted down a no-feeding ordinance. In the distant suburbs of Pittsburgh, where many properties are not posted and hunting is common, there's little public demand for deer management.

"Franklin Park hasn't done anything to alleviate their problem," Mr. Fujak said, "and they have plenty up there."

"We agree with him," said Ambrose Rocca, Franklin Park manager. "We recognize something needs to be done about it. I believe the borough is going to follow several strategies, including educating the public about not feeding deer. Then we'll look at other options that the Game Commission can recommend."

Mr. Rocca said a meeting on deer management would be scheduled soon.

Within Pittsburgh city limits, it's a whitetail oasis. During the fall rut, on streets -- including those surrounding Frick and Schenley parks, on Mount Washington and in Hays and Lincoln Place -- deer are everywhere.

"It's a hazard," city public safety director Mike Huss said.

A veteran archer who hunts with Whitetail Management, Mr. Huss said the present danger posed to city residents by rampant deer overpopulation exceeds the potential danger of archery hunting in some parts of the city. In 2010, the Agriculture Department conducted a study for Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation that found evidence of more deer than could be sustained safely.

Yet, Pittsburgh has no deer management program.

"I don't think there's the appetite for anyone to take it on," Mr. Huss said. "Parks and Recreation suggested [starting a management program] in council, and I offered at the time to help administer it. But no one wants to take that first step."


John Hayes: 412-263-1991 or jhayes@post-gazette.com.

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