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Missoula 'mitigates' urban deer population; other cities cull

One of the biggest complaints from residents is that the deer can turn gardening and landscaping into a major headache
Missoula Deer Trap
Posted at 8:44 AM, Feb 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-13 10:44:44-05

MISSOULA — Most Missoula residents wouldn’t bat an eye at the sight of a buck walking down the sidewalk or a group of deer feeding on foliage in their front yard.

There is no exact estimate on how many deer live in Missoula city limits, but residents have grown accustomed to seeing them around every corner of the city and many are growing frustrated.

One of the biggest complaints from Missoulians is that the deer can turn gardening and landscaping into a major headache.

For deer, the city offers a buffet of green, well-manicured food sources and they go relatively unbothered by humans and pets. The city also provides deer with protection from predators like mountain lions and grizzly bears.

It’s not hard to see why deer enjoy living in the city so much, but they can also make driving more dangerous.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, Montana ranks 2nd out of all 50 states for the likelihood of a motor accident involving an animal, with nearly 70% of these accidents involving a deer.

Ryan Klimstra is a wildlife manager with Fish, Wildlife and Parks Missoula. He says FWP receives five to 10 calls a day in the late summer about everything from dead deer to vehicle incidents to deer eating vegetation.

When it comes to traffic accidents and deer in the road, residents are asked to call the police.

“In order to protect anything that we plant (in the city), we put an exclosure cage around those plants for a few years until they’re large enough to withstand the deer. So, we basically just mitigate against urban deer,” said Jeff Gicklhorn, Missoula’s Conservation Lands Program Manager, “I would venture a guess that there are far more tasty plants on adjacent private property than on city parks and natural areas.”

For years, FWP’s advice has essentially been to mitigate against living with deer. Their website includes suggestions for living with deer including owning a dog to deter deer, putting up a fence to protect plants, and planting vegetation that deer find less favorable.

Randy Arnold has been Missoula’s regional FWP supervisor for over a decade, he defines this issue as one that is just as socially complex as it is biologically.

No one knows exactly how many deer are living within Missoula city limits and there isn’t a clear threshold that would call for action to be taken. The issue often comes down to: What are people willing to tolerate?

“Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is not in a role to tell anybody or the city that there are too many deer and what to do about it. At the end of the day, it's a community decision,” says Arnold, “I believe the social tolerance for deer is a threshold that we hit before a biological threshold.”

Arnold’s suggestion is to begin with a pilot plan. If a management plan were to be enacted, starting small and targeting areas of the city where deer population is high, and tolerance is low.

“If and when the community's want to have a conversation around deer management, they have the space and obligation to develop an urban deer management plan, and Fish Wildlife and Parks stands at the ready to support the development of anything like that.”

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick says the issue just hasn’t made enough noise for it to be acted on. “It’s come up and the typical response is, well, we better check in with FWP. We have never had a proposal in front of us that we evaluated and looked at the expenses.”

While some residents may enjoy viewing wildlife in their front yard and others may see the deer as a nuisance, there may be another reason to consider managing the number of deer that roam the city and that’s chronic wasting disease or CWD.

CWD is a fatal, neurological illness that effects members of the deer family including moose, elk and mule deer. It was first discovered in a wild animal in Colorado in 1981 and has been slowly spreading ever since.

The disease is currently very low or non-existent in the Western Montana/Missoula area but evidence suggests that it is closing in.

Mapping data from USGS, updated December 2023, shows that adjacent towns Great Falls, Libby and Dillon Montana are all dealing with CWD in their urban cores.

The disease can severely impact deer and other species of hoofed animals in areas where transmission is high and is a concern for hunters looking to harvest fresh meat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been no cases of CWD infection in people.

However, studies suggest that it may pose a risk to certain types of non-human primates, like monkeys, and it is not advised to eat the meat of an animal infected with CWD.

“Human health, animal health and the health of the environment are all connected,” said Aniruddha Belsare, a disease ecologist and professor at Auburn University.

Belsare compares CWD to COVID-19 in that both can be easily spread in high density areas.

“If you have a high-density population where there is a high probability of contact between individuals, then an infectious disease is going to spread rapidly,” Said Belsare, “Those populations would be ideal grounds for a disease outbreak.”

With so many deer clustered in Missoula city limits, this could be cause for concern when it comes to the spread of CWD.

Viruses like COVID-19 cannot live outside the body of a host. What’s unique about CWD is that it is caused by misshaped proteins called prions, and these prions can live outside the body of a host.

Prions are excreted in all bodily fluids of a deer infected with CWD and these prions remain in the environment, meaning a deer can get infected without even coming in contact with another deer.

In Helena, the city operates a culling program that has been going on for the last 15 years with meat from captured deer going to feed low-income residents in the city.

Sean McCarthy runs the program with his partner Roy Tanniehill. They are members of Helena’s police department specially dedicated to animal control and urban wildlife and this time of year, their biggest focus is urban deer.

Helena’s deer culling program runs for roughly four months out of the year from November to March and by now McCarthy and his partner have the process down to a science.

The first step before the culling begins is to get an estimate of how many deer per square mile are in the city by driving around and counting them.

Once McCarthy has an estimate he sends that number to Helena Fish, Wildlife and Parks who report back with the total number of deer allowed to be trapped within city limits.

“At what number per square mile do the deer have to spread out and move around on a healthy level that doesn't spread disease and that lowers between the animals,” explains McCarthy. conflicts

McCarthy and his partner placed 12 traps across Helena’s approximately 16 square-mile radius.

The program does take a certain amount of community engagement to run, in part because all of the traps are set up on private property. This is so the traps aren’t tampered with and simply because this is where the deer are at.

McCarthy says one of the biggest questions he gets asked is: why can’t the deer be relocated? “In short, they don't survive it. They're just too weak of an animal to sustain being moved,” says McCarthy.

When deer are under stress and overexert themselves, a phenomenon called capture myopathy occurs, resulting in severe muscle damage that often leads to death.

In the first two weeks of culling this year, McCarthy reports that 14 deer have already been trapped.

Once a deer is captured and euthanized, McCarthy takes the animal back to FWP’s Helena area resource office to be gutted and stored in a freezer.

From there the deer goes to a local meat processor and that meat is sent to Helena Food Share, where low-income residents can acquire nutritious food at no cost.

“You can’t get any more locally grown meat than your own city limits,” said Kim Dale, Program Operations Director at Helena Food Share, “We’re incredibly grateful for the meat. I think we got 441 pounds last year.”

It’s not just Helena that has implemented some sort of urban deer management plan, cities across the country are seeing increased densities of urban deer.

Kansas City sponsors managed deer hunts where certified hunters can apply to hunt in city parks. To keep hunts safe, hunters must be in a tree stand and they must shoot down on their target using a bow or crossbow, no firearms are allowed.

More research needs to be conducted to determine how many deer per square mile is safe and acceptable. This can be tough to answer because every city is unique and the answer often comes down to human tolerance of deer.

Being born in raised in Helena, McCarthy says he would never want to get rid of all the deer in the city and loves being able to see wild animals in his backyard.

Some residents love the program, while others hate it he says, “To effectively run a program like this, it comes down to learning how to tread that middle ground.”