Opinions mixed on allowing limited hunting in some Pittsburgh parks to control deer population

Christine Graziano said deer run freely through the Squirrel Hill North neighborhood where she lives near Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park.

She told City Council members Wednesday that she loves the animals, but supports a proposal to allow limited deer hunting in Pittsburgh parks to get the city’s growing deer population under control.

“I can tell you firsthand how humane and responsible these actions would be at this time,” Graziano said.

She said she’s seen how a large number of deer have started to damage the local ecosystem, including on her own wooded property. The animals are struggling to find enough food and are devouring native plants that should be able to grow in the city’s green spaces, she said.

Graziano described the deer she sees as thin and “mangy,” noting that there are too many competing for limited resources.

That’s why some city officials are advocating for a limited deer hunting program in certain Pittsburgh parks in an effort to bring the deer population to a healthier level. Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration is looking to launch a pilot archery hunting program this fall in the city’s Frick and Riverview Parks.

Officials said the city would partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would help the city identify qualified archers to participate. No more than 30 participants would hunt in the designated parks on one or more designated hunting days, officials said.

Parks would be closed during the hunting program, and hunters would need to abide by various requirements, including a rule that their first kill must be a deer without antlers and its meat must be donated to a local food bank.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed.

“This is going to be a bloody horror show,” said Susan Johnson, who lives in Regent Square near Frick Park. “Bow hunting is not the way to do this. There are going to be injured and dying deer in our yards, in our neighborhoods.”

She urged city officials to ensure they were culling deer in “the most humane way possible” if they moved ahead with the proposal.

Zachary Delaney, of East Liberty, said the proposal should be embraced as “an opportunity to improve the city’s green spaces” by cutting down the number of deer that are over-browsing in city parks and eating away important plant life.

The legislation was introduced to council this week and must be approved by next week if the city wants to meet the USDA’s timeline to launch a pilot program this fall, said Lisa Frank, the city’s chief operating and administrative officer.

“You can only do deer management in season,” Frank said. “If we do the pilot now, we can review it, we can evaluate it, and we would be in a position to start with a more citywide (deer management program) in 2024.”

The city hasn’t had a “meaningful deer management policy for a long time,” Jake Pawlak, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said. The city has attempted to fence off portions of parks that have been “significantly, negatively impacted ecologically by deer overpopulation,” but efforts to protect those areas with fencing have been “largely unsuccessful” as deer have found ways around the barriers.

Councilman Bruce Kraus, D-South Side, voiced strong opposition to the idea of curbing the deer population through hunting.

“This just seems like such a violent way to do it, and that’s where my reservations come from,” Kraus said. “My constitution and my makeup, I am not able to do this.”

Kraus was the only council member to oppose the proposal in a preliminary vote Wednesday, though other council members expressed concerns during an hourslong discussion. The proposal could come up for a final vote as soon as next week.

Council members voiced concerns including the tight timeline on which the city was operating, safety measures that would be in place to ensure no one unknowingly enters a park during hunting and whether hunting was the most humane and effective way to manage the deer population.

“It doesn’t seem like there is a completely flushed out plan,” Councilwoman Deb Gross, D-Highland Park, said.

Shannon Dickerson, director of operations with the animal welfare organization Humane Action Pittsburgh, urged officials to consider non-lethal options to get the city’s deer population to a healthy level. She recommended surgical sterilization.

Frank said the city determined surgical sterilization wasn’t a feasible option given that it would cost about $1,500 per deer.

Dickerson joined council members and others in calling for an ongoing plan to address deer populations into the future.

“Any management option, whether lethal or nonlethal, is going to have to be done every single year to be effective,” said Natalie Ahwesh, executive director of Humane Action Pittsburgh.

Councilman Anthony Coghill, D-Beechview, said he seldom saw deer in the city when he hunted in the 1970s. Now, he said, he sees them frequently. Coghill said there are five or six deer living in his yard, and he feeds them crackers from his hand.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I can’t believe how the population of deer has increased. It’s a stark difference from when I was younger.”

Coghill said he felt hunting was an effective way to reduce what he sees as deer overpopulation.

“There’s nothing inhumane about it,” he said, adding that people have hunted animals for food for thousands of years. “If we can feed people with this, that’s a bonus for me.”

Julia Felton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia by email at jfelton@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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