Airport land open to lottery bowhunters

Pittsburgh — A dispute over hunting access on woodlands near Pittsburgh International Airport finally has ended in compromise.

Under pressure from sportsmen and state lawmakers, the Pittsburgh Airport Authority has agreed to open a 2,362-acre parcel it leases from Allegheny County along Route 30 in Findlay Township, but only to 157 licensed bowhunters – or one per every 15 acres – selected in a lottery.

Hunters will be issued permits and allowed access from Oct. 5 through Jan. 11. ATVs are prohibited; so is driving or pushing deer. Treestands must be removed by Jan. 11.

Described as a pilot to see how things go, the plan is aimed at resolving a conflict between the authority and local sportsmen who were kicked off the property two years ago, when it was posted.

Hunters – including some who had accessed the woods for decades – were further rankled when the authority allowed a select group of airport employees to continue to hunt there, according to state Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Allegheny, who took up the public’s cause.

“The airport authority was treating the land like its own little private hunting ground,” said Mustio. “They kept a list of approved hunters and these guys were bringing in their friends.”

“They denied it but we had examples of people caught doing this.”

The land isn’t private, he said. “It belongs to the citizens of Allegheny County.”

It took a year, but through a series of public and private meetings, Mustio and state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Allegheny, prevailed upon the authority to allow public access.

Gary Fujak, the Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife conservation officer who patrols the area, said the authority’s decision doesn’t go far enough.

“They threw hunters a bone,” Fujak said. “It amounts to a controlled hunt, which is fine for county parks, where you have multiple users to consider. But this isn’t a county park. It’s open woods.”

Opening the property to all licensed hunters and allowing them to choose their firearm would pose no danger to public safety, Fujak said.

“It’s unfortunate they’re taking the approach they are. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Although the commission has followed the controversy, it has no say in how the authority or any other landowner deals with hunting, said Tom Fazi, a wildlife conservation officer and Game Commission spokesman for the southwest region.

“We would have preferred the authority to open their land to all licensed hunters, especially because we need more public hunting areas in Allegheny County. But we can’t force them or any agency, whether they’ve posted or not, to do that.”

“It’s not our property to manage in terms of who gets to hunt there.”

The commission also is not responsible for enforcing the airport authority’s particular hunting restrictions. If anyone besides a lottery winner accesses the land, the authority will have to prosecute through local police, Fazi said. “We only enforce Game Code laws.”

Hunter behavior will have a major impact on whether the program will be offered after this year, Mustio said. “Hunters need to understand this is a test period. They should keep their eyes on each other and the habitat to make sure there are no problems.”

Jerry Gileot, of Clinton, Pa., one of the local hunters who pushed for public access, also is counting on lottery winners to behave.

He hunted and trained beagles on the property for 50 years until it was posted, and while he was among the first to put his name in the lottery, he knows he may not be lucky enough to win a permit.

“I started the whole thing and probably won’t get drawn, but I’m happy that at least 157 people will get a shot,” he said.

He’s hopeful the program will be broadened going forward. “If all goes well, we will have the opportunity to expand to full privileges,” he said. “One of the things the authority said is that if there’s not a lot of issues, no garbage, no shooting up signs, then they’ll eventually allow shotgun and small-game hunting at some point, and maybe muzzleloader after Christmas.”

“Part of the rub is people going in there on ATVs and tearing up the habitat,” he said. “Hunters need to report the slobs that will ruin our efforts. Remember it took a lot of us to get to this point and it will take only one to screw it up.”

For more on the lottery, which tentatively is slated for Sept. 25, visit www.flypittsburgh.com/archery

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