by Luke Harold
Nearly 13 years ago, more than 100 local residents marched down Germantown Avenue to protest the Fairmount Park Commission’s deer cull, which began as an effort to save the ecosystems in the Wissahickon and Pennypack Parks forest from the rapidly growing deer population.
The cull’s first year had ended in 1999 with 43 deer killed and removed from the Wissahickon. From the Chestnut Hill Library to Willow Grove Avenue, protesters held signs that read, “Stop the killing, stop the hunt,” and “Friends of the Wissahickon – plant hugging deer killers.”
Thirteen years and more than 2,000 culled deer later, the Fairmount Park Commission, Wildlife Services, and Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) still deem the cull necessary to preserve the park’s ecosystem. But public advocacy for the deer has waned considerably.
“The number [of protesters] has fallen,” said Bridget Irons, co-founder of the now-defunct Friends of Fairmount Park Animals, which generated a strong presence at the early protests. “People think it’s unwinnable.”
Irons co-founded Philadelphia Advocates for the Deer (PAD), which holds monthly protests of the cull. Eight people attended its last protest in December, and about 15 people came to its most recent protest on Feb. 26 – a far cry from the hundreds who used to publicly voice their support.
Barry Bessler, chief of staff of the Fairmount Park Commission, said he remembered the early years of the deer cull when he always had to answer to local newspapers and television stations.
“Now it barely gets recognized,” Bessler said. “Why I think that is? Because we’re doing it very well. People were concerned about sharpshooters going into the woods with high-powered rifles. We’ve proven over these past 12 years that this can be done very safely, very effectively, very efficiently and with absolutely no inconvenience – safety or quality of life-wise – to the general public.”
Nearly half of the 2,116 total deer removed were killed in 1999, 2001 and 2002, according to the Fairmount Park Commission. Since that initial downsizing of the population, an average of 142 deer have been killed and removed 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,” said Bessler.
Bessler said the goal is to have deer populations of about 25-30 each in the Wissahickon and Pennypack Parks, but said he is “not at liberty” to say how many deer are currently in each park. Wildlife Services surveys the deer population each year before the cull.
The cull has been privately funded each year. Bessler said the FPC spent more money in its first few years than it has since, but declined to say exactly how much is spent and that he “[doesn’t] know where the money comes from.”
Wildlife Services deploys one or two culling “units” of three, consisting of USDA biologists and technicians who drive around the park in pickup trucks, stopping to shoot targeted deer. They use bait stations to lure the deer.
USDA Wildlife Biologist Gino D’Angelo has been deployed in the cull for three years. He declined to say the average number of deer he shoots each night, how many nights a week he is in the park or how many deer are currently in the park.
Mary Ann Baron, a co-founder of PAD, said the lack of information made available to the public about the cull is part of her struggle to gain support for the deer.
“There’s no communication to communities other than a blurb on a press release,” she said. “It’s not made clear what exactly is happening in the park.”
During the protests, Baron said she encounters people who aren’t aware that the cull is going on. “Many people are outraged that this is actually happening,” she said. “It’s unfortunate but it’s the only way”
David Pope, former president of Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), and Peter Lapham, former FOW executive director, co-authored an op-ed piece in the Chestnut Hill Local the year after the first cull, explaining the difficulty FOW had reaching the decision to hold a cull.
“This was not an easy or quick decision by any of the FOW Board,” Pope and Lapham wrote in February 2000. “For six years we studied and searched our souls as you would expect from an organization that has been the leader in preserving and protecting the Valley for 75 years.”
The decision to hold a deer cull was made based on the results of a 1996 study conducted by Natural Resource Consultants Inc. An aerial count of the deer in the Wissahickon Valley showed there were approximately 49 deer per square mile. When a deer population exceeds 28 per square mile, it adversely affects other animal species and vegetation in the area, the study said.
Today, Pope still believes that the cull is necessary.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the only way,” he said. “I think the general population realizes the cull is necessary. As distasteful as it may be, it’s necessary.”
Maura McCarthy, current president of FOW, agreed that the cull is still needed to preserve the park’s ecosystem.
“Everyone in FOW loves seeing deer in the park,” she said, but there also needs to be a healthy balance.”
Baron, when she was a part of Friends of Fairmount Park Animals, recalled asking about the possible use of contraception to regulate the deer population, as opposed to using lethal means.
Jason Wood, a district supervisor for Wildlife Services, said every successful use of contraception to manage deer populations has occurred in a controlled environment.
Contraception is “just not conducive to a free-ranging deer population,” such as in the Wissahickon Valley, Wood said.
Bessler said the use of contraception is still in an experimental phase, as far as he is aware.
“A deer that is standing in the Wissahickon today could be standing in Fort Washington State Park tomorrow,” he said. “So there’s no way to have a controlled operation that involves non-lethal means in a population that is not controlled with some sort of barrier or fence around the park.”
McCarthy said she believes it’s “unethical” to use contraceptive means if their effectiveness is unproven and could cause the deer pain.
“I would rather lead a free and happy life and have it end suddenly than be doomed to painfully lingering,” she said.
Today, Baron and other deer advocates today just want the deer to be left alone.
“Nature has a way of evening things out when left to its own devices,” said Jim Harris, a former member of FFPA and an active member of PAD.
Future outlook Pope said that there might have been “some naïve hope by me and others” that the cull would only need to be carried out once, in 1999. But since the deer population increases each year after the cull, Wildlife Services and the Fairmount Park Commission want to make sure a stable population is maintained.
Bessler and Wood meet each year to determine if another cull is necessary. With the exception of 2000, it has been held every year. Deer advocates, however, plan to continue their efforts.
“I grew up here, it’s my home turf,” Harris said. “I grew up playing in the Wissahickon – it’s a sacred place. It galls me that there’s killing going on here.”
Opponents of the cull are unsure of the difference they can realistically make.
“I don’t have dreams of the killing stopping,” Baron said, but noted that she was encouraged by the outcome of February’s protest, where PAD collected 12 new signatures for its petition.
“We’re called a senior group because a lot of us are older,” she said. “Doesn’t mean anything to us, we’re going to be here for years.”