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Researchers assess strategies to control growing urban deer population

| Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Four deer cross Beadling Road near Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Four deer cross Beadling Road near Bird Park in Mt. Lebanon on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

Ray Turkas' commute can test his nerves.

The owner of Strip District Meats on Penn Avenue travels daily to Pittsburgh and back from his home just south of Erie. That provides plentiful opportunities to collide with whitetail deer.

“Let me tell you, 3:30 a.m. on I-79, that's prime time for seeing deer on the highway. I've hit about 15 of them in my lifetime,” Turkas said.

The Quality Deer Management Association, a nonprofit conservation organization, estimates the whitetail population has swelled from fewer than 1 million in 1900 to more than 30 million today.

Much of that increase has occurred in the least likely place: cities and suburbs.

Wildlife agencies have reduced deer populations in woods and farmlands through lengthened hunting seasons and increased harvest limits. But the ruminant mammals' numbers have grown thick in neighborhoods.

“Twenty years ago, you never saw a deer in Pittsburgh. Now I have them in my backyard,” said Jack Walters of Carrick, president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League. “There aren't enough in the woods, where they should be, but they're all over here.”

The problem

People who considered urban deer a novelty usually change their attitude when vehicle collisions increase, Lyme disease spikes and the animals eat shrubbery and other plantings, said Tony DeNicola, president of White Buffalo Inc., a Connecticut nonprofit deer management firm.

Deciding what to do can prove vexing, he said.

“The primary obstacle is to get a community to agree on whether or not they actually have a deer problem, and can they agree on a course of action,” said Chris Rosenberry, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief deer biologist.

Sharpshooting, contraception and sterilization are expensive ways to control urban deer, costing $200 to $1,000 per animal, said DeNicola — and the latter two methods are unproven. Hunting is the fourth method.

Allegheny County began a regulated hunting program in its nine county parks in 1996. Archers must meet requirements, including shooting a doe before taking a buck. They must donate that first deer and every third one thereafter to a food bank.

The parks department is satisfied with results, said Director Andrew Baechle. Hunters killed 298 deer in 2013, mostly mature does. That number was down from 492 in 2012, 405 in 2011, 543 in 2010 and 478 in 2009.

“This provides recreation for people,” Baechle said. “It benefits the parks because we're controlling deer. It feeds hungry people.”

Yet the fact that hunters are killing fewer deer does not mean they are solving problems, DeNicola said.

Generally, deer should not exist in densities greater than 20 per square mile, he said. His research indicates no urban hunting program has reduced densities below 40 to 50 per square mile.

Deer learn to hide during daylight hours, becoming less vulnerable.

“Deer aren't stupid; they figure these systems out pretty quickly,” DeNicola said.

Marketable meat

Turkas sells hundreds of pounds of venison each week. Customers pay $9 a pound for ground venison, $20 for medallions, $22 for chops and $25 for ribs.

“You'd be surprised how much this stuff moves,” Turkas said. “People are really inquisitive.”

None of that meat comes from wild animals; that's illegal in America. The venison sold in markets and served in restaurants comes from farm-raised animals.

Until the late 1800s, market hunters shot and sold deer, mostly to Northeastern cities. But with no regulations to limit kills, hunters decimated deer populations. By the early 1900s, agencies such as the Game Commission had to restock deer.

The North American Model of wildlife conservation resulted. It calls for managing wildlife based on seven tenets. The first says wildlife belongs to all; the second, backed by federal law, prohibits selling wildlife commercially.

The model so successfully restored deer and other species that most natural resources agencies would be “less than enthusiastic” about changing, said Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

New thinking

David Drake, a wildlife extension specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thinks they should reconsider.

He and other researchers suggest the key to controlling urban deer might be to allow hunters to sell venison. That doesn't have to mean returning to “exploitative” market hunting, abandoning the North American Model, or even supplanting recreational hunting, Drake said. The idea is to give wildlife agencies another tool to use, perhaps after the close of traditional hunting seasons or in areas where recreational hunting cannot occur.

There's precedence, Drake said. Trappers harvest furbearers and sell pelts. Commercial harvest of urban deer could work similarly, he said.

As deer populations grow with urban sprawl, the number of hunters continues to shrink. That makes the need for new ideas “kind of inevitable, unfortunately,” Drake said.

“We are very anxious to get this implemented ... at least on a pilot basis. We think it has a lot of merit,” Drake said.

But the Game Commission has not considered commercial hunting as a management tool because “there are other options,” said spokesman Travis Lau.

Other options

Marrett Grund, a deer biologist and former Pennsylvanian with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said recreational hunting is based on “equitable distribution” and restrictions intended to keep populations high — the opposite of what's needed in urban settings.

“We're not allowing hunters to be as efficient as possible,” Grund said.

Speaking this year at the nation's first Whitetail Summit in Missouri, Grund said wildlife managers “may need to think about loosening our reins.”

That might mean allowing communities to permit hunting before sunrise and after sunset; approving hunting with the use of artificial lights and bait; allowing hunting on Sundays; and legalizing the use of crossbows by certain hunters.

If all that seems unsporting, it's important to remember that urban deer population management is the goal, Grund said.

“I'm suggesting hunters have lost many opportunities in the past, are losing opportunities today, and will continue to lose opportunities if we force communities to hunt under traditional regulations designed primarily for recreational purposes,” Grund said.

The future

Finding answers is not easy, said Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association. Hunters across the nation — dealing with predators such as coyotes, shrinking land access, loss of time to hunt and a society that's disconnecting from nature — exhibit “more concern, more frustration, more anxiety” than ever, he said.

“We have more challenges, and more significant challenges, than at any time in the last century,” Murphy said.

DeNicola, of the Connecticut wildlife management firm, envisions a day when people accept the expertise of urban deer hunters much as they do with volunteer firefighters. Hunters would undergo specialized training, and wildlife agencies would permit “extreme” measures.

“It's the only way I see of solving this problem,” DeNicola said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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