Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is cutting hours at the city’s largest parks starting Tuesday to make way for the U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters who kill hundreds of deer each winter to protect park vegetation and reduce vehicle collisions.
The parks, which open at 6 a.m., will shut at 8 p.m. daily Dec. 1 through March 31 to allow the sharpshooters to kill and remove the animals, as they have every year since 1999, in hopes of reducing the number of car-vs.-deer road accidents and damage to native and landscaping plants, according to park officials.
The affected parks include Fairmount Park (east and west of the Schuylkill, and in the Wissahickon Valley), along with Cobbs Creek Park in West Philadelphia, Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, FDR Park (the Lakes) in South Philadelphia, and Tacony Creek Park, Poquessing Creek Park, and Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia.
The city is setting a curfew to help ensure residents don’t come in contact with hunters.
Some 324 deer were killed and removed last year, said Alain Joinville, the parks spokesperson. “All the venison [deer meat] collected as part of this program is donated to local food banks and charities,” he added.
The city maintains more than 10,000 acres of parks, including neighborhood squares and playgrounds as well as the larger parks with their second-growth forests, swamps, and meadows.
That park land works out to about 16 square miles, or one-eighth of the city’s surface. The city’s goal is to limit deer there to about 8 to 10 per square mile. Across Pennsylvania, there are about 30 deer per square mile, which state and federal wildlife managers consider sustainable, though populations vary with local habitat, predators, and hunting.
After several years without hunting, the deer population at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, which covers one and a half square miles of land and water in Southwest Philadelphia and neighboring Delaware County, rose above 200, or more than four times the target population, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.
At that density deer have a destructive effect on Pennsylvania forests, the report added, killing all young oaks and maples in unprotected areas, among other native species.
White-tailed deer and their natural predators were exterminated from Philadelphia and many other parts of Pennsylvania by settlers. Deer were reintroduced by state officials in the early 1900s to encourage hunters.
In recent years, animal sympathizers and park neighbors have periodically protested the kills and wished there were other ways of preventing the deer from damaging the natural environment and endangering drivers.
But before the city brought in professionals to cull the deer, “the overpopulation put an enormous amount of strain on our urban forest system,” Joinville said. “They would eat significant amounts of the forest,” faster than it grew back, he added. “Since the inception of the deer management program, the forest has been able to regenerate naturally, and the damage to vegetation has reduced significantly.”
The closures include hiking and biking trails and parking areas, and prohibits hikers, bikers, horse riders, and motor vehicles while the parks are shut.
Hunters have already been active this fall in three sections of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Philadelphia and neighboring Delaware County, as in most federal wildlife refuges.
Youth under age 17, members of the military, veterans, and first-time hunters, who were awarded lottery permits this summer, have been conducting crossbow hunts at Heinz since last month, with more scheduled until Dec. 19. The Fish and Wildlife Service expects archers will kill about 25 deer there this fall, with meat to be donated to public nutrition programs.