City launches hunts to reduce Riverview deer population
By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
OBSERVATORY HILL — It’s officially deer hunting season in Riverview Park, though only in a limited capacity, as the City of Pittsburgh seeks to limit the environmental damage caused by the deer herd in the park.
Pittsburgh City Council approved an agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in late August to permit archery hunts in Frick and Riverview parks during the 2023-24 deer archery season. These hunts are only open to 30 archers, who were chosen via a lottery system and who had to pass multiple criteria to qualify for the hunt.
The first period of hunting began on Sept. 16 and will run through Nov. 24, with another hunting period allowed on Dec. 26 through Jan. 27.
The aim of these hunts is to control the deer population in the parks, which has ballooned in the absence of any predators, according to Alison Keating, a member of Friends of Riverview Park (FORP). Without any threats, the overly large deer population has been able to overgraze the undergrowth of Riverview Park.
“They will eat all the food, and there will be less food for themselves and all other things that have traditionally been in the park,” Keating said.
FORP has long sought for the city to allow a deer hunt in Riverview Park, Keating said.
Keating said this has led to the deer not having enough food supplies in the park to keep themselves adequately fed, as well as depriving other animals in the park of habitat.
The deer’s presence is also assisting another ecologically damaging species. The feces of the deer are helping support the population of amynthas earthworms, also known as snake worms, in the park.
In an Oct. 8, 2020, post to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy website, restoration gardener Robin Eng explained some of the damage these worms can cause.
“Aside from being the stuff of nightmares, these worms can increase landslide risk, reduce biodiversity, and are almost impossible to control or remove once they’re established,” Eng wrote.
Alana Wenk, director of advancement with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, told The Chronicle via email that the deer can also damage the bark of trees by rubbing them with their antlers during mating season, which is particularly hazardous to smaller tree species.
But how did the deer get into the park and spread so unchecked? Wenk pointed to a quote from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s podcast series “For the Love of Parks” for that answer.
“It’s tempting to think that deer are only in urban centers because we’ve destroyed their natural habitat,” Wenk quoted from the podcast. “But that’s not true. What’s more accurate is that wildlife is like water. It finds the cracks and seeps in. If you let it, it will take over. We haven’t destroyed the deer’s habitat. We’ve perfected it. They have no natural predators and a lot to eat.”
Keating said hunting the deer is a more humane way to control the species’ population than leaving them to “suffer” in a place they shouldn’t be living in.
The Engage page for the deer hunts on Pittsburgh’s official website also addresses the possibilities of alternate forms of population control. Under the page’s FAQ section, it explains why the city isn’t utilizing fertility control.
“GonaCon is the single-shot multiyear immunocontraceptive approved by the EPA and is not currently registered for use in Pennsylvania,” the page reads. “Additionally, fertility control is often employed in conjunction with deer herd reduction techniques and will not help reduce the already overpopulated herd size.”
Keating also specified that fixing the damage to the park is going to extend beyond just getting rid of the deer. Consumed vegetation will have to be replanted, and the Friends of Riverview Park are lobbying to keep up the hunting program for future years.
“Hunting is a continuous process,” she said. “The way that deer work, they will continue to reproduce, so you do have to continually hunt them.”
The approved hunting program for this year is only on a pilot basis, and is effective just for this hunting season. Keating said the agreement will have to be renewed in future years to keep it going.
Such regular deer culls are not entirely uncommon in the area. Shaler Township has a similar such program for five of its parks, as does Mt. Lebanon for two of its parks and its municipal golf course.
Keating said she hopes the city develops a proper deer management program for future years, which will set out metrics by which the city will measure its success in reducing deer population.
While the hunts are going on, both Riverview Park and Frick Park are usable by residents. Each hunter is assigned to a specific area of the park, often in low populated areas and away from trails. The hunters are not allowed to hunt during daylight hours and cannot hunt near buildings, playgrounds or recreational areas.
In addition, each hunter is required to shoot a doe first, the meat of which will be donated to a city food bank program, and no gutting of deer will be allowed on-site. According to the Pittsburgh Parks Ranger Instagram page, as of Oct. 23, 44 deer have been harvested from the parks, 33 of which were donated to local food banks, equating to 1,320 pounds of meat, or around 5,280 meals.
Anyone interested in learning more about the hunting program can visit engage.pittsburghpa.gov/pittsburgh-deer-management-pilot-program.