Friday, March 30, 2007

MONTANA NEWS: Helena Task Force Recommends Sharpshooters

Helena’s Urban Wildlife Task Force has recommended officials use sharpshooters in most areas of the city to kill 334 deer next winter. If the city waits even a year, the group’s report said, more than 600 deer will have to be culled in order to attain an acceptable population of urban deer.

The task force’s report said the city now could be home to as many as 500 mule deer, with most living in Helena’s southern neighborhoods. Group members called the estimate conservative. If left unchecked, the population could grow to more than 1,800 by 2010, the report said. The group wants to reduce the herd to about 380 animals.

“Given the situation we’re in, (sharpshooting) is probably the most effective, it’s probably the safest, and while this may sound strange … it’s the most humane,” Task Force Co-Chair Matt Cohn said. “This is going to be the best method to achieve the goal we have.”

The group also recommended the city commission set aside between $30,000 and $100,000 for a deer-management program and appoint a permanent wildlife advisory committee to oversee the program into the future.

Task force members are set to present their report to city commissioners on Wednesday.

The report represents the end of one phase and the beginning of another. City commissioners will hold public meetings and discuss the issue. If they settle on a management plan, they’ll have to submit it to the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission for final approval.

City Commissioner Sandy Oitzinger served on the task force, which reached its decision through consensus votes. She said she’s unsure how she’ll address the deer issue at the commission level.

“How I will vote on this as a commissioner is going to depend on the interaction and dialogue with the commission … it would be premature for me to say whether I’m going to support the sharpshooting option or not at this time,” Oitzinger said.

The task force recommended several other options — including ongoing public education and encouraging the use of deer repellants and deer-proof landscaping. The group approved other options, such as fertility controls and certified urban hunting, which members said could become more viable in the future.

“There are some things that we’ve approved, but they’re on the backburner,” group member Bob Habeck said. “We wanted to recommend the slate of appropriate management options, even though they might not come into play in one year.”

Task force members rejected two options: doing nothing, or trapping deer and moving them elsewhere.

The group said allowing the deer herd to continue to grow unchecked will only exacerbate the problem, and the trap-and-transport option, while popular at public meetings held early this year, has a number of associated issues — it’s time-consuming and expensive, it potentially shifts the problem elsewhere and deer often die during the process.

The full report will be available on the city’s Web site, at the Lewis and Clark Library and at the city Parks and Recreation Department after it’s presented to city commissioners.

The herd

Helena is unique from the scores of other communities across the country that have adopted deer-management plans — the Queen City is home to mule deer, while the vast majority of other cities dealing with burgeoning herds are home to whitetails.

“The task force is plowing new ground when it comes to mule deer, because there are virtually no mule deer plans — they are all for whitetail deer,” said FWP Biologist Gayle Joslin, who served on the task force.

The group believes more than 32 deer occupy every square mile in Helena, and population projections put the herd’s total at more than 700 animals by next winter. The group settled on a goal of 25 deer per square mile, a number some other communities have used for whitetail deer, Joslin said.

In a biological sense, Helena — with its watered lawn and gardens and city limits expanding more and more into wildlife habitat — could feed many more deer. The trick is finding how many deer Helenans are willing to live with, and task force members said total elimination is not an option.

Joslin said 25 per square mile might not be the right number, but it’s a place to start.

Is there a problem?

One of the basic questions task force members considered throughout the process — and an issue they heard again and again from the public — is whether an urban deer problem exists in Helena.

The group’s answer: Yes. And it’s only going to get worse.

“The (human) population that we see is going to grow, and the deer population is going to grow,” Task Force Co-Chair Virginia Niccolucci said. “We would have nothing other than more human-deer conflicts, unless we do something now.”

Habeck agreed.

“Using professional judgment and conservative estimates … we’re on the footslope of (an exponential) growth in urban deer population,” he said.

If city and FWP commissioners can’t agree on a plan for even one year, the problem grows, he said.

“The key thing to know is, even in a best-case scenario, we’re going to be losing time and … it’s just going to get worse,” Habeck said.

In 2003, the Police Department received 103 complaints about deer, most of them calls about dead animals. The department received 16 reports of deer-vehicle collisions. Last year, dispatchers fielded 241 calls, with 30 reported collisions. FWP received 73 calls in 2004 and 162 calls last year.


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