In Mt. Lebanon, it's all over but the shooting.
The municipality will have sharpshooters from the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture begin to cull the deer herd within the next two weeks. Residents will not be notified, but municipal officials have said they have taken steps to ensure public safety.
After two years of public debate, hearings, proposals and complaints about too many deer eating shrubs and causing traffic accidents, Mt. Lebanon commissioners voted in January to approve a $19,999 contract with the USDA for this year to allow eight days of shooting, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the public parks, public works director Tom Kelley said.
Commissioner Keith Mulvihill voted against the contract because he's not satisfied that it will be safe.
"I'm concerned about the safety of coordinating that kind of program in parks the size of our parks," he said. "I do think there's going to be some risk with this."
An application for a cull permit was submitted to the State Game Commission and Mr. Kelley expected to receive the permit at any time.
While Mt. Lebanon police will be notified about four hours in advance of any shooting, residents will not be, in order to avoid any interference from groups that oppose the effort. Trails through parks also will not be marked in advance.
A group of people has been following the matter with several objections, including worries about public safety.
Mr. Kelley said the effort was not called a hunt, as the shooters are specially trained professionals and are not just recreational hunters. They will not track deer or chase them through the town. Instead, they will set out bait in specially approved areas for several nights before the shoot in hopes of luring the deer to the spots.
The deer will be shot using night-vision apparatus, preferably as they eat. The shots will be from above, with the high-powered rifle aimed toward the ground in the event of a miss. Shots will be aimed at the head and neck using soft bullets that expand in order to be more deadly and to try to avoid a ricochet, he said.
"It's a debilitating shot. It will bring the deer down," Mr. Kelley said, noting the guns will have silencers on them.
If the shooter hits the deer but does not kill it, the shooter will follow the animal and administer another shot. For this reason, the USDA probably will shoot on days when there is snow to help tracking.
In a public meeting several weeks ago, Craig B. Swope, district supervisor and wildlife biologist with the USDA, said the sharpshooters had never wounded a deer without killing it immediately. He said they had never injured a person or pet in the process.
Deer will be dressed on-site, the carcass will be removed using a sled and the meat will be sent to food banks, Mr. Kelley said.
In the next few days, officials from the USDA will tour the town with the police department in hope of selecting shooting areas that are safe, with a natural backstop in case the bullet does go through the animal or misses. They will make use of hills and ravines and will not be firing toward homes.
Earlier reports that the shooters would be firing into the parks from trucks have been revised as that method probably isn't feasible, Mr. Kelley said.
There is no required buffer zone between the shooting areas and homes or yards, Mr. Kelley said. While the Game Commission has a required buffer zone between hunters and homes, culling is not considered a hunt and is not subject to those limitations, he said.
"They are able, and will, in fact, hunt right up to occupied structures," Mr. Mulvihill said. "They're still using high-powered weapons in a pretty confined area."
The contract allows the staff to use a box trap to catch the deer for shooting. Mr. Kelley said that, while the shooters will look for doe, it is possible they will kill bucks.
The Mt. Lebanon deer herd was estimated at 15 animals per square mile, with the optimum number being one to three per square mile. A maximum of 75 deer would be killed according to the plan.
While commissioners gathered information about contraception and other population control measures, the board decided on the shooters.
Commissioner Dale Colby said he was satisfied that the plan is safe, but that he thought the municipality had to communicate better with its residents.
"I'm OK with what is going to [happen], but I'm not OK that the public totally understands what the safety measures are," he said, noting he didn't think the municipality's fact sheet on the culling explained everything it needed to.
Upper St. Clair is the nearest town that uses sharpshooters, in addition to Fox Chapel.
Mr. Kelley said in the event of an accident, Mt. Lebanon's insurance would handle any claims.
The deer management plan and implementation fact sheet are available at www.mtlebanon.org.
Laura Pace can be reached at email@example.com or 412-851-1867.