Friday, January 26, 2007

MONTANA NEWS: Deer Cull in Helena Moves Forward

Most of the people who spoke at the Urban Wildlife Task Force's first town hall meeting on Helena's growing deer herd favored reducing the population.

Those folks were evenly split between culling the herd and a combination of lethal and non-lethal options.

A few residents said they don't believe a problem exists. They said they've learned how to live with the animals and don't want to see them killed.

Several people said they favor trapping and transporting the deer to another location, but the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a number of concerns about the option.

The task force, which began tackling the issue in May, is set to present its recommendations to the Helena City Commission in early March. The city then will decide whether the herd should be reduced and, if so, how to do the work and how to pay for it.

Any management plan must then be approved by the FWP Commission before it can be implemented. Helena officials said they hope the agency will partner with the city in funding any possible plan.

If the city decides to manage the herd, it will be an ongoing practice.

The population

Gene Hickman, a Helena wildlife consultant who was hired to estimate the herd's size, said the Queen City may have as many as 350 deer during late summer and autumn. He cautioned the estimate is no more than an "educated guess."

He hasn't finished working with the numbers, but said he believes the city had about 300 deer when he did his counts, beginning about a month ago. The census is a snapshot in time - no one knows the herd's size for certain. The highest numbers were found along the city's southern boundary.

One thing is certain: the deer are healthy, and the city's buck/doe ratio means the population will continue to grow, he said.

FWP wildlife biologist Gayle Joslin said population models show the herd will grow exponentially. It could double every three to five years, she said.

If the city decides to manage the population, it will need to set benchmarks, Hickman said.

"We need to find out what the socially acceptable number of deer is," he said.

The options

The task force is considering a number of non-lethal and lethal options. Among them:

- Status quo. Leaving the situation alone could result in additional costs down the road as the herd grows, and could increase the amount of property damage and the risk of accidents and injuries.

- Encouraging the use of unpalatable landscaping, repellants and barriers to keep deer out of yards.

- Fertility control or sterilization. Trained workers could inoculate deer with contraceptive or abortive drugs. The process is expensive, and no FDA-approved chemicals are yet available.

- Capture and transfer. Deer could be tranquilized or trapped, and then moved. It's a high-cost option, and one FWP has concerns about - transporting urban deer to a wild setting could result in high mortality and could possible spread illnesses such as chronic wasting disease.

- Capture and kill. This option may require property owners' permission, and tranquilized deer cannot be consumed.

- Professional wildlife removal. Sharpshooters could bait and cull the deer.

- Certified urban hunting. Community bowhunters could be selected and trained to target the herd.

Lists of options will be displayed at the Lewis and Clark Library and the City-County Building for public viewing.

The comments

One woman drew laughter from the crowd numbering more than 100 when she playfully suggested introducing wolves into the city to cut down the herd's numbers.

A man suggested allowing Helenans and their kids to drive the animals out of town using paintball guns.

A number of speakers said they're worried the deer could spread disease or become aggressive toward children. Folks also are concerned the herd draws predators into the city.

"(Deer) are unpredictable and they aren't safe, and my children aren't safe," a woman said. She said a deer charged a child in her neighborhood last year.

"We have a responsibility to have safe neighborhoods in our community," she added.

One woman said she's concerned about the danger of deer spreading diseases to humans. An FWP official said he's not worried about the possibility, which he said is highly unlikely.

"We're sick of them," one man said of the dozen or so deer he sees in his yard most days. He favored killing the deer.

One older man said he often hiked in the mountains south of the city in his youth. Seeing a deer was rare. Now he sees as many as 19 out his window.

He said he once saw a doe repeatedly pounce on a small dog, killing it.

"Something should be done to eliminate the deer," he said.

One man thought a certified urban hunt was the best option and said many people would volunteer to participate, making it a cheaper choice.

"I don't think this has to cost as much as it could," he said.

Some don't want the city to reduce the herd.

"I enjoy seeing the deer," a woman said. "We learn to adjust with them.

"If someone shoots a deer in my yard, I don't want to pay for it," she added.

A second meeting is planned for Feb. 14 at the Civic Center.


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