by Lou Mancinelli
Since 1999, sharpshooters have killed approximately 2500 deer throughout Fairmount Park as part of an annual “deer population management” campaign, supported by several governmental and quasi-governmental entities. The killing, which will begin again soon, is done with little or no fanfare in the cold-weather months. Most people who live near the park do not even know it is going on.
The deer are killed late at night by sharpshooters who drive around the park in pickup trucks, lure the deer with food at “bait stations” and then kill them with high-powered rifles. The killing goes on in Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia as well as in Wissahickon Park, which courses through Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, Gino D’Angelo, who was hired to do the killing, declined to say in an earlier interview with the Local the average number of deer he shoots each night, how many nights a week he is in the park or how many deer were in the park at the time (2011).
The killing started as a pilot program in 1999 after a controversial two-meeting public process in which hundreds of residents spoke both for and against the program. This year, for example, 86 deer were killed in Wissahickon Valley Park, compared to 56 in 2012, 35 in 2011 and 44 in 2010, according to numbers provided by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department to the Local. Many more deer were killed in 1999, 2001 and 2002, according to the Fairmount Park Commission, and since that initial slaughter, an average of 142 deer have been killed each year. A high percentage of female deer killed are pregnant, according to Wildlife Services.
“We now are in a maintenance mode, where the deer that we take every year pretty much go toward maintaining a stable level of population,” Barry Bessler, of the Fairmount Park Commission, told us in an earlier interview. Wildlife Services and Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) have also publicly supported the killing.
The killing has been privately funded each year. In a 2011 interview with the Local, Bessler declined to say exactly how much is spent and that he “[doesn’t] know where the money comes from.”
Philadelphia Advocates For The Deer (PAD) is a group formed by Chestnut Hill area residents in 2010 to spread awareness of the continued killing and to increase public opposition to it. The group contends that killing deer is an inhumane and unsuccessful way to manage a deer population that is as easily managed by the cycles of nature.
“I feel that there’s a vacuum, and things still need to be done to draw people’s attention to alternatives [to the killing],” said Mary Ann Baron, a PAD co-founder who lives on the fringe of the Wissahickon, during a recent interview. “We think it’s a very violent experience happening in the midst of our community.
“The scientific evidence of the perpetual rebound theory states that when large populations of deer are killed, the remaining deer benefit from enhanced food supply and begin to produce more deer. According to Bridget Irons, our (PAD) co-founder, ‘Killing deer is a perpetual treadmill.’
“The rebound theory is one that has been discussed with the Department of Parks and Recreation since the first deer kill, and it is evident that the number of deer in the Wissahickon Park has increased substantially from the original 159 deer. So what is the rationale for the annual killing of the deer?
“Chestnut Hill area residents were told that the first killing in 1999 would be just a one-time kill. Fourteen years later, more than 2,500 deer have been killed, with no data on the effectiveness of what we believe is an inhumane way to alter the number of white-tailed deer in the park and no long-term plan to develop less inhumane strategies for controlling the number of deer that visit our Wissahickon Valley Park.
“In addition, it has been researched by wildlife disease specialist Dr. Anne Ballman that many more deer may have been killed by eating corn used as bait in the park, since deer are unable to digest corn in the winter and die due to corn toxicity.”
In September of 1998, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 of 15 Fairmount Park commissioners voted to apply to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) for a permit to hire professional sharpshooters to kill deer in the park. A study conducted two years earlier by the Natural Resource Consultants Inc. showed approximately 49 deer per square mile in the Wissahickon. The study said when deer population exceeds 28 deer per square mile, it produces adverse affects on the health of animal species and vegetation in the area.
The report found 159 deer scattered throughout the three-square-mile valley, and concluded that sharpshooters were necessary to kill the large majority of the deer until their number reached about 30, the Local last reported in March, 2011.
At the beginning of each year, Bessler explained, an aerial study determines the number of deer that “need to be killed.” The fact that the number of deer killed each year has been cut by more than two-thirds points to the effectiveness of the program, according to Bessler. “Every year we’re removing what popped up since we last worked,” said Bessler, who compared the killing to cutting grass from four inches to two inches.
As for a deer population managed by nature, Baron recalled a PAD member who once said there was no hunting in the Wissahickon for 150 years, and the number remained stable. One issue that bothers some area residents is the fact that deer eat plants in some backyard gardens, but Baron says that several plants have proved deer-resistant in her own garden such as butterfly bushes, lily of the valley and herbs like basil and mint.
PAD members maintain there should be public meetings to discuss alternatives to the annual slaughter. “We’re clearly not green if we’re doing this to animal life,” said Baron. “We know we are not likely to stop the killing, but we will keep trying and protesting because it is the right thing to do.”