Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Deer cull called off in Mount Lebanon

Pittsburgh — What started with a bang ended with a whimper in a suburb here whose first-ever deer cull soon became a bust. 

Mount Lebanon Township officials had hired Wildlife Specialists of Wellsboro to bait, corral and shoot 150 deer by March 31, but the initiative was abandoned about a week after it began, with just six deer dead.

Wildlife Specialists President Merlin Benner cited a sudden change in weather – a consequence of having started the cull too late in the season – as the main reason for the failed cull, although he said anti-cull related vandalism also was a factor. 

It didn’t help that on the first night of the cull March 10, it took the shooters 11 bullets to kill three deer, which fueled opponents’ claims that the corral-and-kill method would be inhumane and inefficient.

Aimed at reducing deer-vehicle collisions by thinning the herd, the cull became a divisive issue denounced by animal rights activists who picketed township meetings and by sportsmen who would have preferred a controlled archery hunt.

Benner pulled out of the contract that paid him $500 per deer, because he said he would never meet the township’s goal. 

“We got started much too late,” said Benner. “By the time we got around to shooting, the weather turned mild, the snow melted, and deer were finding plenty of grass. They weren’t interested in our bait.”

Although Benner said he would be willing to return next year, provided he could get a much earlier start, township commissioners will explore other options in coming months, according to township spokesman Susan Morgans. She estimates there are 400 to 600 deer roaming the township, “and their numbers will have to be dealt with.”

“All options are on the table,” she said, noting that even sterilization might be considered. “Once we take a break, we’ll come back to the deer management issue with fresh eyes. We’ll hear from experts. We may have to use a combination of approaches.”

A controlled archery hunt next fall is a definite possibility, she said. “There’s a silent majority of people we didn’t hear from about the cull, but I think even if they’re not hunters, they would find a controlled hunt more acceptable because hunting is such a strong tradition in Pennsylvania.”

The township tried to organize a controlled hunt involving municipal employees last fall, but by the time they applied for doe tags from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, there were none left, she said. 

The township also has used sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the past, and without much protest, Morgans said. 

The corral-and-kill method was a first for Mount Lebanon and for Benner’s company. Even if Mount Lebanon is done with it, Benner plans to keep it in his arsenal, which also includes sharpshooting and trap-and-transfer of deer. He said he has performed relocation of deer in New Jersey. 

It is not permitted in Pennsylvania because of chronic wasting disease, the Game Commission said.

Benner defended his corral-and-kill techniques, and said he will continue to use subsonic ammunition in addition to rifles with silencers. 

Benner had been employed as a deer biologist by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources before starting his own business a few years ago.

“The bullets are quite heavy, so you get momentum, but they move slower and aren’t going to make a lot of racket,” he said. “You want to make the operation as quiet as possible when you’re in a suburban setting.”

In trying to explain why it took 11 shots to kill three deer, Benner said the bullets may have been faulty. “I would use subsonic bullets again, but from a different manufacturer,” he said. 

Even after Benner left the township, fallout continued, with protestors at a March 23 township meeting circulating a petition calling for a ban on culling throughout Allegheny County. At the same time, one of the township commissioners who had vigorously advocated for the cull resigned her position. 

“She stepped down for health reasons,” Morgans said, “but I can’t help but think how glad she must be to be out of this (controversy).

“It’s the most divisive issue I’ve seen in my 30 years working for the township,” Morgans said.

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