White Township’s deer-hunt feedback

An analysis

By Sara Stewart

WHITE TOWNSHIP — What does community-based wildlife management look like? Township officials have been conveying some mixed signals this year.

Per the township Board of Supervisors’ own literature, open government and citizen engagement are key in pursuing a successful deer management plan for White’s Woods Nature Center and the White Township Recreation Complex. But the words and actions by the supervisors thus far say something very different. During a spring 2020 discussion about White’s Woods, for example, a township supervisor said, “I am not interested in any more public input.”

The HawkEye spoke to two experts on community engagement and local government to get an idea of best practices in pursuing a plan like this one. Both emphasized the wisdom of local leaders engaging with the public and soliciting feedback when undertaking a community action – especially one as controversial as the township’s hunting plans for Whites Woods Nature Center.

Mark Brennan, Penn State’s director of graduate studies in agricultural and extension education, said township supervisors would be working in their own best interest to engage with the community as they weigh a deer management plan.

“It really is to their benefit,” Brennan said in an Oct. 27 phone interview. “It can appear messy, it muddies the water, but the more people you engage, you’re getting more information and more input to make the best decision. And the more people you can get involved, the more different resources [you bring] to the table for the council.”

Public involvement, he added, may require official encouragement.

“Local people are really interested in being involved,” Brennan said. “But they don’t always know where they fit in.”


WHITE TOWNSHIP’S website includes a list of documents pertaining to their development of a deer management program.  One of them is a 2004 best-practices article on community-based deer management published in collaboration by Cornell and Penn State universities. Some of its guiding principles are as follows:

“In community-based deer management, community members should be involved in evaluation and in any subsequent decisions,” the article reads. “What is needed to resolve community-based wildlife management issues is a process that includes multiple perspectives, encourages constructive interaction among people with diverse viewpoints, and leads to new understandings and acceptable solutions.”

The document continues: “Formal leaders, such as town officials or agency staff, can motivate change and foster stakeholder trust and support. Cooperation of local leaders is important especially in controversial or complex environments because they lend credibility to efforts to address public issues. Where community trust of the agency is lacking, wildlife agencies may need to invest in building the capacity of local leaders to engage the community in productive dialogue about deer management… Decision-making processes and outcomes must be perceived as credible. In the suburban deer management cases examined here, credibility of the decision-making processes and outcomes were increased by third-party facilitation, stakeholder involvement, and open sharing of information.”


ON PAPER, this would appear to be a common-sense guide to moving forward with the question of what, if anything, to do about the deer population in White’s Woods and the wooded area around the township’s Recreation Complex. But the board of supervisors has been anything but transparent with the public about their plans, and the community is not supportive of what they’ve heard so far.

Township supervisors solicited feedback in the form of letters and emails on their proposed deer hunt, tentatively planned for fall 2022 hunting season. An open records request by Friends of White’s Woods President Sara King yielded a file of public comments from township manager Milt Lady on Sept. 28. The file contains 11 letters in favor of hunting and 24 letters opposing it. For reasons that have not been explained, the file omitted one letter submitted to the board by township resident Patricia Heilman, who also opposed the hunt.

Heilman’s letter contained two important legal points of inquiry for the supervisors:

Image: Pennsylvania Game Commission

“I looked up the PA Game Commission rules for archery hunting, and they specify that hunters must be 50 yards away from residences,” Heilman wrote. “So, in what areas of White’s Woods would hunting be legal? Also, the 50-yard requirement from residences pertains to people safety, not home safety. So, in actuality, a hunter would have to remain 50 yards from where people are. With the number of people who use White’s Woods daily, even in the winter months, and the number of close trails and intersecting trails, how will the maintenance of the 50 yards be accomplished?”

Other surveys have elicited different responses. Friends of White’s Woods announced in their November newsletter results of a bow-hunting survey. A majority of survey respondents were in opposition, with only 14 percent in support. And an Indiana Gazette article reported that a survey conducted by WDAD radio found 64 percent of respondents favored a hunt, although the article’s link to the survey didn’t work.

A clear majority of direct respondents to the township are in opposition, but township supervisors seemed uninterested in that feedback, as demonstrated at their open house at S&T Bank Arena on Oct. 21.

“All public comments will be accepted,” read the township’s flyer, which also reported that several experts would be on hand to answer questions. (All of them turned out to favor deer hunting in White’s Woods.)

But the event, which was sparsely attended due to fears about attending live events during a pandemic, did not ultimately allow public comments. Township Recreation Director Ryan Schaffer turned on a microphone to introduce the experts, then added that one or two “loud voices” would not be allowed to monopolize the discussion, so all comments would be between individual community members and the experts stationed at tables around the room.

No moderated public discussion was facilitated, although a comment box was available on a folding table near the exit. The box yielded two written public comments, both expressing objections to the hunting plan.


EXPERTS SAY many Americans now are looking to get more involved in local government decision-making. The observation is shared by Zachary Roth, author of “The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy” (2016). He says it’s a great time for citizen involvement in decisions about what happens in their towns.

“People are looking for deeper ways to engage with the process right now,” Roth said in an Oct. 26 phone interview. “It’s a very fertile time for that kind of stuff, partly in reaction to the assault on all these forms of democracy that we’ve seen over the last few years.”

He suggested the practice of participatory budgeting as a good place for local government to reach out to stakeholders.

“This is a great example of democracy working to give people a voice, in a way that’s not just every four years,” Roth said. “Cities set aside a certain small percentage of their budget for people to meet and propose projects and vote on them. So they decide what projects are going to get funded. It’s usually done through a council member’s office. People can say, ‘We want benches at this particular intersection, or a bathroom in this particular park.’ It’s partly a way to address the real needs of the community, and a way to engage people more in the process. They get more interested and feel more confident to go on to get involved.”

Participatory budgeting could be a way for the township to fund a more robust and in-depth study of the deer population and the potential impacts, positive and negative, for the town’s population. But it remains to be seen whether the board of supervisors will hear the needs of their constituents, or simply move ahead with their own hunting plan in spite of vociferous public opposition to having weapons and hunters in a public park. According to the experts, there is still ample time for them to embrace feedback and work with various groups to ensure there’s a solution everyone can feel good about.

“At the end of the day, we have a lot more commonalities than differences,” said Penn State’s Brennan. “There are compromises that can be made. Getting input from different people means you might find some new, better idea of what to do that suits everybody.”


Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist based in White Township who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications, and edits for The Week magazine. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and the White’s Woods logging controversy.



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2 Responses to White Township’s deer-hunt feedback

  1. Rick Mauk says:

    FWW’s opposition to deer herd reduction by bow hunting is just plain wrong. Surely, you are aware of the damage wrought by the selective browsing of an unchecked deer population. Natural predators have been eliminated. It should be easy to educate oneself on the destruction that deer cause to the forest fauna. I know you have brought in many experts, I can’t imagine any one of them is not aware of this. Rick Mauk, member FWW, non-hunter.

  2. I’m not a hunter, but a woods-strolling, dog-walking, bird-spying middle-aged churl who happens to make his home a few blocks from the border of White’s Woods. We also do a good bit of gardening–when we can–in defiance of the hooved locusts that descend upon our property in pairs, trios, and occasionally groups of a dozen or more, consuming all manner of buds, shoots, leaves–and just about any other green thing that tries to make a go of it outside the stalag-like fences we’ve been driven to hide behind.

    Whites Woods has no such defenses, and it doesn’t take advanced degrees in the sciences to see how that is working out. There are big trees, the likes of which have repeatedly caused golden dollar signs to dance in the eyes of White Township’s elected officials, but not much of an understory. No trees for tomorrow. Well, few. The Park is a safe oasis for a resident population of big, healthy, hungry deer that range out into the surrounding community by night to gorge themselves in the gardens and landscaping, then retreat at dawn, leaving nothing but heaping piles of ungulate patties in their wake. The old gardener’s adage to “plant enough to share” doesn’t help. They take it all. As they’ve done in the park. Given the population of mature trees, White’s Woods should be a rich and diverse collection of species of mixed ages, growing and changing, but those fat, greedy deer–who are just doing their jobs, passing on their genes–aren’t having it. They mow down tree seedlings as they do my tomatoes.

    I walk regularly, but rarely go to White’s Woods, even though that means driving to a trailhead outside of town. Why? Because it makes me sad, how unhealthy and unbalanced the forest is, all for lack of a proactive management plan. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m suggesting some sort of absurdity like cutting the big trees to let the light in, or churning the soil, or whatever pseudo-science is being hawked in the hope of loading up a few score of logging trucks.

    There is only one long-term solution. A system of enclosures must be constructed, each a few acres in size, that excludes the deer from feeding on seedlings until they grow tall enough to survive. It won’t be cheap, but that’s how to do it. Write grants, fund-raise, build ’em on an annual cycle. In the short term, a small-scale cull seems to be the best answer, despite the sensitivities of folks who see them as cuddly, or noble, or whatever. Talk of balance seems cold, but at the end of the day we made the problems, carving up habitat and providing a sanctuary that protects the artificially overpopulated herd. This is not the time for sentimental dithering, or unreasonable fears. From where I sit, a controlled archery cull is necessary to set things closer to right. And maybe that means closing the park for a day or two in order to make folks feel safe?

    In the meantime, anyone with a bow and arrow who’d like to sit in my garden some night, don’t ask, just stop by. What I don’t know won’t hurt me.

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