Pennsylvania hunts for deer control solutions

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Near Koening Field in Edgewood, white-tailed deer mow the backyards and gardens. Deer eat the bushes surrounding Galleria Mall in Mt. Lebanon, and in Ross they run rampant from Babcock Boulevard across McKnight Road to Thompson Run Road. Even on the North Shore asphalt, a wayward roadkill was recently removed in the shadow of Heinz Field.

In Allegheny County and metropolitan areas across Pennsylvania, where deer densities exceed the food supply, many people believe there's got to be a natural, non-lethal solution to the man-made problem. Wildlife scientists and federal and state governments say that in most cases there is not. As community leaders grapple for answers that will satisfy the disparate views of constituents, most municipalities are taking no action and the problem is growing. Passions on both sides of the argument flare, and in some neighborhoods D-E-E-R is a four-letter word.

"It's a difficult, complicated and long-term issue," said Ross councilman Chris Eyster, who said he's trying to balance the community's need to control deer with the belief of some residents that the deer shouldn't have to die to curb the population explosion.

Rifle deer season opens Monday across Pennsylvania and some 750,000 license holders are expected to kill about 325,000 deer during several months of hunting. But that will do little to alleviate the number of deer in cities and suburbs where limited hunting access, the absence of predators and leafy back yards create ideal conditions for the perfect eating and breeding machine.

Each deer eats about a ton of shoots, twigs, leaves, weeds, berries, grasses and other flora each year, out-competing other animals for food, destroying their habitat and stifling the regeneration of new sprouts. Many areas are stressed from the ground to the 5-foot browse line. Each doe reaches sexual maturity in one year and almost all breed, often bearing twins and sometimes triplets. Unchecked, deer densities explode and deer-related nuisance complaints abound. Forest regeneration stops, agricultural and landscape damage increases and the risk of Lyme disease carried by a deer-borne tick grows. Vehicle-deer collisions rise to costly and dangerous levels.

Allegheny County and some of its communities have successful control programs. But in the city of Pittsburgh and most of the municipalities where the deer problem is most severe, no action is being taken.

The origin of the deer problem isn't as simple as urban sprawl creeping into natural areas. In fact, there's nothing natural about it.

"A couple hundred years ago, the trees here were hundreds of years old with a canopy way up high and not a lot of growth down where deer could get it," said Jeannine Fleegle, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief liaison for urban deer management. "In a lot of these areas, there weren't a lot of deer."

Near the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania was virtually clear-cut for timber, and white-tailed deer were nearly driven to extinction in the state. The trees grew back in unnatural proportions, creating man-made habitats of low hanging foliage. Animals of all kinds returned in unnatural numbers and proportions. The Game Commission reintroduced deer from other states, and today's Pennsylvania deer are their descendants.

"Stewardship is needed," Ms. Fleegle said, "but it's politically difficult for a lot of officials to take action because their constituents either don't know or don't like the options. So nothing gets done."

Step 1 in any municipal deer management program is establishment of a deer control committee to quantify the problem, identify high-density areas, seek community input and research options, said Ms. Fleegle.

When density reaches more than about two deer per acre, depending on habitat, more stringent methods become necessary to curb population growth, said Harris Glass of U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

"A lot of people want there be some deer contraceptive," Mr. Glass said. "But the science just isn't there yet."

Two products are on the market. The immuno-contraceptive "porcine zona pellucida" vaccine, PZP, isn't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and no state wildlife management agency approves its use on free-roaming deer. More recently USDA developed a "gonadotropin-releasing hormone." Despite some success with GonaCon, the agency's literature concedes some major limitations, "especially the need to capture and inject each animal."

Trap and transfer -- capturing deer and relocating them -- is a non-starter. It's manpower intensive and results in more dead deer, which is counter to its intention.

The state legislature mandates that hunting be the primary management tool for game animals. But even in many suburbs where archery hunting is done safely and effectively, there's a social problem with hunting.

"I would feel better if it was somebody who does this professionally," said Kelly Metro of Ross.

Katherine Luckett of Edgewood said deer are "multiplying and ruining our gardens."

"I don't want to become a pariah in our community, but I believe that my rights are being violated by these huge rodents," she said. "What I don't want is for an inexperienced hunter to wound the animal and have it run to a neighbor's yard."

Since 1993, there have been 17 hunting-related shooting accidents among archers, or 1.13 incidents per year in Pennsylvania. None resulted in a fatality or included injury to a non-hunter.

Property owners, including municipalities, can post their land against general hunting but invite individuals or groups to participate in controlled hunts. Since 1996, the nonprofit archery service Whitetail Management Association of Greater Pittsburgh has helped individuals and municipalities with deer problems. When human population density makes controlled hunts impossible, the last option for deer-plagued communities is a cull. Not considered fair-chase sport hunting, culling is the surgical killing of deer by paid sharpshooters. In 2007 and 2008 Mt. Lebanon received deer control permits and hired USDA Wildlife Services to cull excess deer.

"In 2009, new commissioners abruptly ended the program," public works director Tom Kelley said. "Goals were not realized. Now I think the deer have come back." Mt. Lebanon Commissioner Dan Miller, who voted to end the program, said it was never intended to last forever.

Monroeville's deer control permit authorizing culling hasn't been renewed in several years. Upper St. Clair's long-running deer plan included yearly USDA culling that ended in 2009.

With 80 to 100 deer-vehicle collisions in 1991, Fox Chapel chose a combination of controlled hunts and culls. Chief David Laux said cars are hitting fewer deer in Fox Chapel and plants have grown back in the parks, but he still hears complaints about killing the deer.

"I'm completely understanding of their right to be upset and protect the rights of an animal," he said. "My stance is it was a public safety issue and we had to do something."


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


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