Pittsburgh’s deer are crossing a line. Or, may have already. | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh’s deer are crossing a line. Or, may have already.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s deer are crossing a line. Or, may have already.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
A deer crosses the road in Lincoln-Lemington.

There is a war being waged inside Riverview Park, and the aggressor is more adorable than you can imagine.

Graceful, yet skittish, with big eyes and voracious appetites, the deer that live in Pittsburgh’s parks and green spaces are eating their way toward ecological disaster. And with recent winters being milder, and no natural predators in their urban oases, the deer populations are only growing faster and more unfettered.

While this problem is not necessarily new, it does, at the very least, appear to be approaching a tipping point, after which it will become nearly impossible to keep them from living, eating, and breeding in our parks and neighborhoods, and wiping out our urban forests as we know them.

“High populations of deer can have severe and long-lasting impacts on our urban forest’s ecosystem,” Alana Wenk, director of advancement at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

The deer in the city’s parks, including Riverview, are causing a couple of big problems, according to Wenk.

“Deer typically cause physical damage through two primary mechanisms: direct browsing, which is the eating of leaves and new growth, and buck rubbing, which is tree damage from bucks rubbing their antlers on small trees during the mating season,” Wenk says. “This damage reduces the ability of forests to regenerate.”

According to retired University of Pittsburgh professor Dr. Walter Carson, who has studied deer and their negative effects on forest ecologies for decades, the issue is widespread.

“This is a problem nationwide,” he tells City Paper. “But deer have been overabundant in Pittsburgh, most likely, for a long time. The Pennsylvania Game Commission used to have a thing they called the ‘Game News,’ and in 1960, they had an issue entirely devoted to the deer problem.”

A destructive force

As they’ve browsed and eaten many of their favorite species to the point where they are no longer available, the deer in Riverview Park are looking elsewhere to feed their appetites. Unfortunately for local residents, that often means that the deer end up in yards, feasting on flowers and gardens.

Alison Keating, a member of Friends of Riverview Park, a volunteer committee that works with the city and the Parks Conservancy to advocate for the park, agrees.

Keating, who lives in Manchester, says she joined the group after observing the deer in greater numbers, and recognizing that they cause a danger for motorists.

“Someone in our group asked animal control how many dead deer they’ve been picking up,” Keating tells CP. “And the number is getting bigger and bigger. The number has been around 500 a year for the last couple of years. The majority of those are hit by cars.”

Keating says that 500 is a “good estimate” for how many deer need to be removed from the park to start to control the population.

She said Friends of Riverview Park is working to do research and enlist public citizens, as well as community leaders to try to come up with solutions to control the deer population.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s deer are crossing a line. Or, may have already.
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
A deer crosses a bridge along the Bridle Trail at Schenley Park.

Who’s to blame?

In a February 2022 episode of its podcast, “For the Love of Parks,” the Parks Conservancy explored the deer problem in Riverview Park at length, offering up an interesting look at how the population has gotten so out of control.

“It’s tempting to think that deer are only in urban centers because we’ve destroyed their natural habitat, says podcast host Camila Rivera-Tinsley, a former director at Frick Environmental Center and current CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern PA. The assumption is that “as we build more condos and office parks in what used to be the far suburbs, deer are forced into the city and into the parks. 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.”

Warming temperatures only cause more problems for the forest ecosystems when it comes to deer.

“Climate change is going to exacerbate the problem,” Carson says. “When we get a really hard winter, especially two years in a row, a lot of deer die, but that’s not happening anymore. Or at least it’s not common.”

Carson says it might be too late to fix the crisis he and his colleagues have worked for decades to prevent, citing a recent conversation with U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service research ecologist Alex Royo.

“Alex recently told me — he’s in his mid-50s — he said, ‘Walt, I don’t even like to talk about the deer problem anymore. I’ve been giving talks about the deer problem for 25 years and we’ve gained no traction.’”

Keating echoed that sentiment.

“It’s really hard to do something about a situation you’re completely ignoring,” she says.

Requests for comment from the City of Pittsburgh and the office of Mayor Ed Gainey were not answered.

City Councilman Bobby Wilson, who represents District 1, said he's heard from constituents about the deer in Riverview Park, but he's still unsure what, if anything, is a reasonable solution to controlling the population.

An unpopular solution

As the deer population gets larger, there are a number of ways to try to mitigate its damage.

For instance, the Parks Conservancy is using fencing and tree tubes to keep the deer from browsing growth and tree saplings. The group has also installed deer fences in some parks to keep deer out of areas where the group is attempting to perform forest and habitat restoration.

However, these efforts only focus on protecting small parts of the parks, and don’t address the broader problem of overpopulation.

Most experts agree it doesn’t make sense to introduce a new predator into city parks. (Wolves, bears, or bobcats running alongside mountain bikers and joggers? Not happening.) Sterilization is another idea, but it is expensive. A 2011 report by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said the average cost of sterilization is about $1,200 per deer. A 2019 report from Ann Arbor, Mich. had similar findings, reporting costs as high as $1,500 per deer.

One solution, while wildly unpopular in residential areas, is to cull the deer, or allow sharpshooters and archers to hunt deer in Pittsburgh parks.

It’s an idea that comes with controversy and a lot of strings attached.

“This is a problem that is virtually intractable for multiple reasons,” Carson tells CP. “The first is, you’re going to have to kill a lot of deer. And there are going to be some people who lose their minds. Imagine you like the deer, and you feed the deer and someone says they are bringing in hired guns, using, basically sniper weapons? That’s not going over well.

“And deer reproduce. Rapidly. So you’re going to have to do that year after year after year after year. This is expensive to do. Now, you might be able to bring in bow hunters, because you can’t be unloading guns in neighborhoods. So you bring in bow hunters. Now, imagine the first time a bow hunter doesn’t [hit the deer] in the heart. And the deer runs into the neighbor’s yard and bleeds out right there. And brings the bow hunter out of the woods to get his deer. Imagine that scenario for people who may not understand hunting.”

Carson says that grizzly scenario is just one example of how things could go wrong. Ultimately, he fears the damage may have already been done.

“Because deer have overbrowsed both urban and rural forests for 30, 40, 50, 60 years … anything the deer likes to eat is gone,” Carson says. “Now they mosey into our neighborhoods, because we plant our gardens.”

Carson says that, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down to Georgia, out-of-control deer populations have overeaten native species to the point of destruction, making way for more exotic shrub species that the deer refuse to eat, and throwing our forest ecosystems out of whack.

“You can bring deer numbers down, but if you do, where are those native species supposed to come back from?”

According to Carson, in 2001, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, recognizing there was a deer problem, built and maintained fences in the Allegheny National Forest.

“Over the last six or seven years, we went in and studied what happens when you remove deer for 20 years,” Dr. Carson says. “No plants came back. Because species that the deer like to eat are gone.”

click to enlarge Pittsburgh’s deer are crossing a line. Or, may have already.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
A deer in Allegheny Cemetery

So what’s next?

When asked for his take on the future, Carson is not optimistic.

“A collapse of our urban forests,” he says. “In my view, it’s a fait accompli. The deer have been overabundant for 50 plus years, and the invasive species are taking over.”

Now, a collapse doesn’t mean the forest is going to be replaced with a giant smoking crater. Rather, it’s just going to become unfamiliar to us over time.

Carson describes a hypothetical scenario where deer browse on tree saplings, which will cause a slowing of new tree growth. In turn, the forest floor becomes covered not with new trees, but with non-native shrubbery that the deer won’t eat. Eventually, mature trees will die and fall over, giving more sunlight to the shrub, which will continue to take over the floor, essentially choking out any native growth.

The end result is no longer a tree covered forest, but a giant field of invasive, exotic shrubbery.

“Something will be there,” he said. “The green space isn’t just going to disappear. But it’s very likely that it will be completely unrecognizable from what we’ve known. It will no longer be the forest as we know it.”

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
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Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith