MISSOULA — Rita Johnson tends a garden, and even though deer can be pests on greenery, Johnson doesn’t want to see the animals violently killed.
“I can tell you that trapping deer in a net and having a deer thrashing around in a net and then be shot at with a nail gun in the morning will not work for me,” Johnson said Wednesday. “That will kill me. And I have talked to many people who feel the same way, and I speak for them, too.”
Johnson, who said she has lived with deer her whole life and feels comforted by them, offered her comments to the Missoula City Council Public Safety and Health Committee, which launched an effort to deal with residents’ complaints about the growth in the urban deer population and ensuing increase in property damage, dangerous roads, and other problems.
The committee didn’t take action Wednesday, but chairman Jon Wilkins said the first step in a process that’s likely to last a long time is getting a solid population estimate.
“If we don’t have a count, we don’t know how big the problem is,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins and Councilor Dick Haines are leading the charge to tackle the urban deer issue. Both said the effort will take money, but Wednesday, Wilkins requested that Jim Burchfield, dean of the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation, see if the campus can help. Burchfield agreed.
Modeling shows that Missoula has an estimated 3,000 deer, including those in areas such as Grant Creek and the South Hills, said Mack Long, with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Council members wanted to know what an ideal population is, but Long said it’s more of a social question about how many deer — and how much damage to shrubbery — people are willing to tolerate.
“Do we want to reduce the numbers and kind of see if that becomes a level that people can live with?” Long said.
Burchfield, who also was a guest expert in Council Chambers, agreed the questions the city must answer are social ones. What are people willing to accept when it comes to management and processes?
“Those are things that take time and the city has done well in the past,” Burchfield said.
Long said Fish, Wildlife and Parks will help the city of Missoula reach its goal, but he said the goal is up to the city. To make a dent, the population probably would need to be reduced by 500 to 1,000 deer, and Long said “not everybody will support that idea, I don’t think.”
In fact, he said in Missoula, some people want to see the deer in their yard eradicated, but their neighbors can’t bear the idea of anyone hurting the ungulates. But he said the deer always have been in Missoula, and the problem isn’t new.
“Legislation gives cities the opportunity to create a plan to manage deer for urban wildlife issues. So you have that authority,” Long told councilors.
Helena is managing its deer population, but the Missoula Valley is a trickier landscape, Long said. Animals move back and forth along river corridors, in and out of city limits, and in and out of riparian habitats. But he mentioned various ways the city could enforce population reduction and suggested working with Missoula County Commissioners, too.
Currently, the agency kills a couple hundred deer a year, Long said. Most of those are animals that have been injured, for example, in a car wreck. Residents are prohibited from shooting firearms in city limits, but agency officials can do so.
Long said Fish, Wildlife and Parks doesn’t shoot deer with nail guns. Methods of managing the population could include sterilizing deer, tranquilizing and then shooting them dead, or trapping them and euthanizing them with drugs.
In Helena, some deer meat goes to the local food bank, but Councilman Dave Strohmaier wanted to know if urban deer, who are grazing on vegetation that is treated with various pesticides, would still yield healthy meat.
“What if anything have you heard relative to testing venison for possible toxins or chemicals?” Strohmaier said.
Long said it’s a reasonable question and would require an assessment.
Councilman Bob Jaffe asked if increasing the harvest of deer just outside the city would help decrease the number of urban deer, and Long said it was a reasonable suggestion. One option, he said, would be amending the archery harvest in and around Missoula.
A hunter with a bow and arrow had better be adept at the shot, though, or that method will create a public relations setback the city can’t overcome, said Councilman Haines. A couple summers ago, he got phone calls from neighbors about a four-point whitetailed-deer walking through yards with an arrow in its shoulder.
“It upset a lot of people to see that, and justifiably so,” Haines said.
The council hasn’t yet looked at the cost of different approaches, but Wilkins said it ranges from an estimated $35 a head to $135 a head. He prefers a sterilization program because killing a deer in the valley just makes room for another one to come down from the hills – away from predators – and take its place.
On the other hand, shooting a deer with a contraceptive keeps that animal in the valley, he said, although that idea poses pros and cons, too: “It’s a lot cheaper to go with the contraception idea, but it drags out a longer term of time.”
The issue is sensitive, and Wilkins anticipates the local debate will reach a fever pitch before the council takes action. The population count itself could take a year, he said.
Management costs money, too, and Wilkins also wanted to know if Fish, Wildlife and Parks had resources.
Long said the agency didn’t have a lot of money available, but it will contribute the time of biologists and wardens to help. He also said because wardens focus so much attention in outlying areas, police also may be able to help.