Urban deer in Missoula, consider yourselves on notice.
Members of the City Council want you gone, and they agree with members of the public who declared you a danger, a nuisance and a safety hazard on Wednesday.
It may take some time and a few more meetings, but the writing is on the wall – the Missoula City Council is serious about taking on the issue of urban deer and making the city safer.
At a joint meeting of the Public Safety and Health and Conservation committees, council members talked about Missoula’s urban deer problem and got a tutorial from the city of Helena on how it has successfully handled the issue.
Since 2008, police there have been baiting and luring deer into traps that are 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide and covered with heavy fishing net.
Each morning, police make the rounds to the city’s 12 traps – most of which are on private property at the request of landowners.
Here’s what happens when they catch an adult deer: First, the trap is collapsed and the netting confines the animal to the ground, explained Mark Lerum, Helena’s former assistant chief of police and director of the city’s deer program.
Then police euthanize the deer with a bolt gun stunner.
Once police have gutted and cleaned the animal, the carcass is taken to a cooler. After several deer have been dispatched and cleaned, the bodies are taken to a meat processor before being donated to the Helena Food Share, which then disperses the meat to low-income families.
Not everyone in Helena agreed with this solution when it was first tried, Lerum told the council.
But there was less of an outcry once the community realized that the animals were euthanized quickly, fawns that were caught were released, and that the operation was conducted in a neat and clean way.
It helped too that the police department’s statistics showed the program worked.
In 2005, for instance, Helena’s police department recorded 127 deer were injured or killed, the department received 55 problem calls regarding deer, and 31 deer were involved in motor vehicle crashes.
In 2011, those numbers declined dramatically: 31 deer were injured or killed, 5 were problem calls, and 6 were involved in motor-vehicle crashes.
Council members were eager to hear how the city determined it would harvest 200 deer a year and what the program cost annually.
An East Coast company was hired to help the city determine the number of deer within the city limits and decided that department would target removing 25 deer per square mile of the city. Since the program began, 531 deer have trapped and euthanized in Helena.
“It has made a difference in the number of calls we get,” Lerum said. “We have a reduction in the number of complaints.”
While there is still some citizen opposition to the program, those calls have dropped off considerably, he said.
“We try to be sensitive to the public. ... It’s too bad it has to be done, but it has to be done.”
The traps cost about $1,000 apiece in 2008 and 2009. Given time and labor costs, Lerum estimated that it costs about $160 per deer for the city of Helena.
Volunteers from the police department are paid to do the work on their off-hours, he said.
Councilor Marilyn Marler recommended that the council get a deer population estimate and get estimates for what a similar deer program would cost in Missoula.
Councilor Cynthia Wolken asked Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir to help collect statistics related to deer calls, the kind Helena used to get its program started.
Councilor Jon Wilkins said he wanted the council to explore the issue more before scheduling a public hearing on the matter. And he urged the council to move quickly.
“I know we have a deer problem,” he said. “I get a lot of calls about it.”
Although the council was disappointed to see only five members of the community show up for the meeting, councilors welcomed the public’s comments.
Former councilman Jerry Ballas urged the council to not dawdle on the issue.
“Take some action before the problem becomes out of hand,” he said.
Said homeowner Terry Cestnik: “Their numbers are growing and quickly becoming dangerous to have around. It seems the deer have more rights than people any more.”