Monday, September 17, 2007

MISSOURI NEWS: More Deer in the Burbs

TOWN AND COUNTRY — As if on cue, the little white-speckled deer crept across a nearby lawn.

Don Meyer stood in his garden next to the hostas that had been nibbled to the ground. He peered through a chicken-wire fence searching for others in the battalion of Bambis that had feasted on his lilies and impatiens.

He knew they were out there.

"That's the fawn," he said, lowering his voice. "There should be two more."

It seemed an idyllic scene, one that has drawn people for years to this pastoral city of 10,894 residents — the towering oak trees, the rustle of squirrels scurrying across dead leaves, the early evening sun hitting the fawn's reddish coat.

But many residents, including Meyer, have a hard time mustering fondness for any deer, a graceful symbol of all that is good in pastoral suburbia. With the deer population surging, the animals are destroying prized gardens and flower beds and darting in front of SUVs.

Apparently, they can't take a hint, either.

Meyer has thrown yard tools at the deer, yelled at them, honked his car horn, anything to scare them off. But they just keep coming.

"They're too used to humans," Meyer said. "If I hear my wife blowing her horn in the morning, it means she can't get up the driveway because there's a deer."

Recently, some residents have urged city leaders to do something, such as allowing bow hunters to set up shop in backyards. Others want the animals netted and slaughtered.

The Missouri Department of Conservation recommends a deer population no higher than 25 per square mile. According to a 2004 head count, Town and Country had 68 deer per square mile.

Since then, the number of deer has likely grown significantly, said Tom Meister, a wildlife damage biologist with the Department of Conservation.

"The only population control is the automobile," he said.

The large residential lots in Town and Country offer deer more food sources and places to hide, Meister said. He also believes that a spring frost earlier this year may have killed vegetation, pushing deer to find food in people's yards.

In a region where new subdivisions continue to encroach on wildlife habitat, Meister has seen it all — the geese that invade playgrounds and ruin recess for schoolchildren, coyotes that snatch pets and beavers that dam up creeks.

"I've got a meeting with the city of Union about a muskrat problem," he said last week.

Controlling wildlife in an urban setting is often a series of experiments. Town and Country already tried once to control its deer population.

From 1999 to 2001, the city trapped and relocated 233 deer at a cost of roughly $360 per deer. The program was seen as a humane way to remove the deer. But a study of the first year of the program found that 20 percent had died from the stress of being captured.

The Department of Conservation ended the program over concerns about spreading disease.

Meanwhile, some Town and Country residents look enviously at cities such as Clarkson Valley, Chesterfield and Wildwood that allow controlled hunting. During the past four years, bow hunters have claimed more than 200 deer in Clarkson Valley, a city of 2,675 residents.

"We think it's worked," said Mayor Scott Douglas, noting that residents are reporting fewer problems.

But Meister says it's too early to say how effective urban hunting programs have been. Before hunting began, Clarkson Valley had a deer population of about 85 per square mile. The Department of Conservation has yet to conduct another deer count.

Not everyone in Town and Country agrees the deer are a problem.

"I think we are equally divided on the issue," said Bruni Perez, a member of the Town and Country Conservation Commission. "The deer come and go through my property, and I've been able to make it work. We co-exist peacefully."

If residents have problems with deer eating their vegetation, they should consider replacing it with plants the deer dislike, such as daffodils and peonies, Perez said.

Bill Kuehling, an alderman and chairman of the city's Conservation Commission, doesn't believe hunting is the answer.

"Who would we allow to hunt and how would that be decided?" he said. "I don't think the city is going to be in the business of giving hunting tests."

Instead he supports the city running a captive bolting program. That's where the deer are captured in traps and killed with a device that shoots a bolt into their brains, just like at a slaughterhouse.

It has been done in Town and Country before.

Joseph Williamson, a retired doctor, received a permit from the Department of Conservation a few years ago to trap and bolt deer in his yard.

"We had tried every repellent," he said. "The main reason we wanted to move (here) was to garden. … They were eating everything."

Over a three-year period, Williamson trapped and killed 23 deer, which reduced the amount of damage. But after that, the trap failed to net a deer for two straight years, and Williamson didn't renew his permit.

Now he has an electric fence surrounding his yard, but the deer still sneak in. This year, three does gave birth in his yard. "That's just on one acre," he said.

Four weeks ago, Meyer put up a chicken wire fence around his home, but wishes he could do more to protect what's left of his plants.

"If I had a .30-30 (rifle) and was allowed to shoot here," he said, "I wouldn't have any deer."


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