Friday, September 22, 2006

MONTANA NEWS: Task Force Examines Helena Deer Population

By LARRY KLINE - IR Staff Writer - 9/22/06

Jon Ebelt IR Staff Photographer - The deer problem in Helena continues to hang over the heads of government leaders as well as local residents, who often find deer literally at their doorsteps. What would happen if city officials chose to do nothing to corral the growth of Helena’s urban deer herd?

Members of the Urban Wildlife Task Force on Thursday considered that question as part of their analysis of lethal and non-lethal options the city might employ to control the deer population. The group identified one merit in maintaining the status quo — the sight of deer in town is pleasing, members said — and plenty of potential problems.

Outlining issues associated with an unchecked deer herd roaming city streets and backyards allows the group to give the Helena City Commission and the public a clearer picture of possible strategies, state Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Gayle Joslin said. Authorities already manage deer in some ways. FWP wardens and city animal control personnel euthanize injured deer if they cannot walk and move on their own. A city ordinance outlaws feeding deer.

Nothing is being done to control the population, Joslin said, and continuing to allow that unmitigated growth creates a host of issues.

Deer can threaten human safety in several ways. Bucks sometime become aggressive toward people during the fall mating season. Does at times do the same in the spring, when they are protective of their fawns. As the numbers of deer increase, some likely will become more aggressive toward humans, she said, because the animals view people as competitors for resources, such as food and space. They also draw predators like bears and mountain lions into city neighborhoods. More deer also would mean more property damage, more collisions between animals and vehicles, and more health problems for the deer.

In Helena, the animals have been found with viral skin infections, ringworm and growths that blind them or prevent them from eating, Joslin said.

She presented a simple population growth model. Beginning with one buck and one doe, and assuming females would produce one fawn each year, the mating pair would multiply into 120 deer in a decade. Using the same scenario, but assuming every doe gave birth to twins, the original four-legged lovers would produce a herd more than 1,000 strong in 10 years, Joslin said.

Task force member Andrew Jakes said he doesn’t want the herd to outgrow its welcome — a “threshold” of tolerance exists among city residents. Another member, Tom DeYoung, said some citizens already are intolerant of deer. He said he recently witnessed a woman throw a rock at a doe.

The task force also is ironing out questions it will use in a phone survey later this fall. About 400 people will be contacted by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. The $10,000 phone survey will be paid for in part by a $7,000 grant from FWP. The task force also has $5,000 in city funds at its disposal.

Some of that money may go to Gene Hickman, a consultant and wildlife biologist, who could be enlisted to determine the size of the city’s herd. In his presentation Thursday, Hickman said he counted 60 deer in the Sixth Ward during a sample survey earlier this week.

The growing population is a relatively new problem. Joslin said the deer population has been noticeably growing for about five years. Some of the dozen bucks euthanized in the city last year were 4-year-olds, and represented some of the oldest males found in the city.

When her father was growing up in Helena, she said, news of a hunter finding a deer track spread fast in the city.

Read more about the herd on the IR’s Deer Diary blog at

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