Thursday, January 10, 2008

MONTANA OPINION: Is Managing Urban Deer Worth the Cost?

Pardon the cliché, but if you want to know why something is happening, follow the money. So, that’s what I did this week, and at the end of my search, I found what must be the most expensive deer in the world.

You could have some of these high-priced deer in your town, too. What’s happening in Helena, Montana, could be coming to a city near you.

Most cities have urban deer populations. In Helena, we host as many as 700 deer, both whitetails and muleys. These are not country deer coming into the city for a geranium treat now and then. These are third or fourth generation city deer born, raised and reproducing within the city limits, deer that have probably never heard a rifle shot or seen a hunter. They’ve become habituated to humankind for a simple reason. Helena is great deer habitat. Cities unintentionally provide the two primary characteristics of quality wildlife habitat, food and security.

Some people in Helena consider deer an amenity or at worst, a nuisance, but others consider them a pestilence--no better than oversized, hoofed rats. And sure enough, once or twice each fall, an aggressive, love-starved buck threatens somebody, and the incident gets the front page play it doesn’t deserve. Adding to the furor caused by these high profile incidents, our deer neighbors always make landscaping and gardening a challenge, which most of us solve by fencing or netting and planting deer-resistant species.

(All this has, incidentally, has created a substantive “deer economy” in Helena for fence companies and nurseries--and auto body shops, of course.)

To me, urban deer are just part of the we-don’t-live-in-a-perfect-world deal, no different than pigeons and squirrels and dog poop or your lawn amd neighbors who don’t shovel their walks. We city folks created this great deer habitat, so how can we be surprised or upset when deer use it? As any hunter knows, game animals naturally gravitate to habitat closed to hunting--and stay there if they find enough to eat.

But I might be in the minority in Helena. A survey conducted by the University of Montana Business School for the Urban Wildlife Task Force, (UWTF) created by the Helena City Commission to advise them on what to do about the “deer problem” found that 78 percent of city residents surveyed wanted the deer herd “reduced,” but only 54 percent wanted this reduction if we had to use “lethal means.”

This majority appears to be carrying the day in Helena, and the city commission has decided we need to kill deer because they pose a public safety hazard.

So, here’s the plan. Or perhaps I should say, here’s what probably will happen--unless the city commission steps in and stops it. Sometime next winter, Helena police officers will start baiting deer into open space areas and then in the dark of night using night-vision scoped rifles, they’ll shoot 50 deer.

Plan A was to kill 350, but the Fish and Game Commission, the board that sets policy for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), rejected this proposal. At a later meeting, though, the commission agreed to allow the city to kill 50, as long as no hunting license dollars were spent on the project. (That qualifier is sort of comical, as you’ll soon read, because lots of “hunters dollars” have already poured into Helena’s deer management plan, and under any government scenario, more will be spent.)

I’m hardly against killing deer, having done it as much as possible in my life. But the Helena plan brings out my fiscally conservative side. When I followed the money, here’s what I found. (As a disclaimer, agencies can’t accurately track all the publicly financed staff time that goes into administering projects, so the following figures certainly undershoot the true expense of killing deer in Helena.)

To get the ball rolling, the City of Helena created the UWTF and tapped its general fund for $12,000 to finance its work. FWP joined in with a $7,000 grant, which covered most of the cost of the survey.

In addition, according to FWP information officer Tom Palmer, the agency has already devoted $23,000 in staff time to work with the UWTF. The city didn’t keep track of the staff time, but parks and recreation director Randy Lilje told NewWest.Net that “a fairly substantial amount” of staff time has gone into the deer plan. Since I’m fiscally conservative guy who supports equality, I’ll be kind and assume the city only did as much as the state, even though the expenditure of city staff time was likely much higher.

If you’re adding this up, you know we’ve already spent $65,000, all public funds, on targeting these 50 deer or $1,300 per deer. And many more thousands will be spent. The city must hold public hearings and plans to lobby the legislature to pay for its deer reduction plan. I doubt the police department has special urban deer-killing equipment, so we have to buy it. And by the way, I’m a bit stressed about my police force out baiting and killing deer when they should be catching child predators, closing down meth labs, or busting those punks who prowl around Helena slashing tires and shooting out car windows with air pistols.

The venison must be handled properly, so somebody has to field dress the deer and take the meat over to Montana Food Share. And clean up the gut piles, of course, because I suspect people might object to finding them in our city parks.

I’ve probably missed a few expenses, but I feel safe saying the true cost isn’t any less than $2,000 per deer this year. It might be less in future years, and I suppose it’s a little unfair to put the entire amount on those 50 soon-to-be-dead deer instead of amortizing it over hundreds of more deer we plan to kill in the future. Killing deer might cost less than $2,000 per animal going forward, but still cost us deerly.

If somebody wants to challenge my numbers, I’ll make the adjustment and move on because the exact cost is not the point.

The point is: Do we want to spend so much public money to kill urban deer? And then repeat it every year to keep up with Mother Nature? Keeping in mind that close to half of Helenans don’t want deer killed, would this public money be better spent on maintaining parks, buying a fire truck, reducing energy use, making our town more pedestrian or bicycle friendly, promoting recycling, repaving streets, or paying for a hundred other underfunded city services? Ditto for FWP money. Would it be better spent on hunting access programs or wildlife research?

In conclusion, I’d like to see the UWTF do another survey and ask this question: Are you in favor of reducing Helena’s deer population at a cost of $2,000 per deer the first year and an undetermined expenditure of public funds in future years? I suspect that when the results came in, I might be in the majority.



reena said...
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reena said...
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Eva said...

THANKS for all the info!! It's nice to know there are sane people out there and see the stupidity of Helena on this issue.

I currently have a blog tracking the mismanagement of wildlife in MT. Please check it out: