Pittsburgh’s deer population is out of control: That’s about the only thing city officials, animal rights advocates and frustrated residents agree on. But as a Wednesday City Council meeting made clear, there’s much less consensus about how the city should manage the deer population. And while council appears poised to approve a plan to try bow hunting the deer, the debate seemed far from resolved.
The Gainey administration wants to temporarily allow around 30 hunters approved by the federal Department of Agriculture to bow hunt deer in two of the city’s largest parks: Riverview and Frick. Officials are rushing to get a pilot program underway this fall, but stress that would be just the first step in establishing a comprehensive deer management program.
“We’re not going to achieve population management with the pilot,” Jake Pawlak, Pittsburgh’s deputy mayor and director of the Office of Management and Budget, told members of council. “We’re going to take the initial steps necessary to collect data and anecdotal information necessary to design an effective strategy from there.”
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The administration hopes to be able to attract a group of experienced bowhunters who will volunteer to be evaluated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After a background check and a skills test, the city will have the final say on who can participate.
Concerns about the tight timeframe
Council advanced two bills to establish the program Wednesday: one to carve out a necessary exception in a law that generally bans hunting in city parks, and another to establish a contract between the city and the USDA.
But nearly all council members took issue with how the mayor’s office hurried the process. Legislation typically takes at least two weeks to be passed by City Council. But the bills proposing the pilot program were only formally introduced to council the day before, and the mayor’s office asked for an expedited approval process in which members will take a final vote next Wednesday — just eight days after the bills were taken up.
“It does seem like the administration is asking for us to rush this vote,” Councilor Deb Gross said. “[But] even if we let them get started, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the conversation.”
She and other members expressed concern that the timeframe doesn’t provide an opportunity for a public hearing on the deer culling program — though Gross added that such a discussion may still be scheduled. “Frankly, I think council has the authority to cancel a contract even if it awards one,” she said.
Pawlak defended the tight timetable, arguing the city is beholden to a Sept. 5 deadline set by the USDA. He said officials didn’t find out about that deadline until Council went on recess earlier this month. This week was the first opportunity to discuss the bill since council returned from its break, Pawlak noted.
If the city doesn’t authorize the program in time, Pittsburgh would have to wait an entire year before the program with the USDA could begin, Pawlak said.
Despite their reservations, council members gave their preliminary approval to the program by an 8-1 vote. City officials have said they’ve heard a chorus of complaints from residents about the deer, who can stray into traffic and contribute to the vegetation loss of parks.
Councilor Bruce Kraus was the only member who voted against the program. He argued the city should focus on developing more humane approaches like sterilization, and said it was cruel “to let the species overpopulate to a point where the only solution is to go out and slaughter.”
“I think there has to be better ways to do this,” Kraus said, lamenting that members were made to vote on the plan “without any clear, comprehensive strategy for long-term wildlife management across the city.”
Many questions remain
In fact, there remain dozens of questions about the specifics of the program. The mayor’s office couldn’t estimate how many deer will be eliminated in each park, nor could it provide a current estimate for how many deer there are now.
The original version of one of the bills cited a USDA estimate that there are an average of 51 deer per square mile of city parkland. But on Wednesday council was given an amended version of the bill in which that language was stricken. The new version says only that the city should aim to have 20 deer per square mile — twice the number deemed appropriate in the original text.
When asked about the change, City Solicitor Krysia Kubiak said she believed the USDA asked to remove the 51-deer statistic, noting that an official study hadn’t been completed to support it. Despite that, Kubiak said she has “heard that number quite often. And I certainly know that we are vastly beyond the … healthy standard.”
How long will the hunting season be?
Another moving target is the length of the city’s hunting season. Though a spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey said earlier this week that the cull would take place in one day, officials clarified Wednesday that the program was likely to last longer, though they said they couldn’t be more specific.
“Our general direction is to go light here,” said Pittsburgh’s chief operating and administrative officer, Lisa Frank. She said the hunt would be longer than one day, but probably not longer than 30 days.
The mayor’s office has also yet to set its sights on decreasing the deer population in neighborhood areas outside the parks.
“Right now we’re just talking about the parks. My real concern is all the deer in the streets,” said Councilor Dan Lavelle, suggesting members prioritize “really wrapping our collective minds around how we’re going to tackle this [problem]” in the future.
Gainey officials said the USDA requires its partners to complete a pilot program before launching a wider wildlife management strategy. They added that data collected during the pilot could inform the broader strategy.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that we just wanted to do on our own,” Kubiak said. “We wanted to be able to use a program that has been successful and safe.”
But the lack of specifics Wednesday clearly dissatisfied council members, and residents who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period offered sharply diverging views.
Susan Johnson, who lives near Frick Park, claimed that the controlled hunting strategy is a hunting license cash grab for the state’s game commission and implored the city to consider more humane options. She argued that bowhunting could risk maiming deer.
“This is going to be a bloody horror show,” she said. “There are going to be injured and dying deer coming up in our neighborhoods, in our yards.”
Other residents claimed the city deer they’ve seen are remarkably skinny and suffering and that the damage to city parks could catalyze landslides and degrade the forest.
“I can tell you firsthand how humane and responsible these actions would be,” said Christine Graziano, who lives in Squirrel Hill near Schenley Park. “Unmanaged deer populations are decimating our ecosystems … they are growing thin and mangy as they desperately roam the city for any scrap of vegetation.”