Hunting Oklahoma's Urban Deer

Believe it or not, hunters are taking impressive whitetails in and around several of our biggest cities each season. It could be time for you to start. . . .(August 2009)

I have a friend in Tulsa who is an avid bowhunter. He not only fills his archery tags but also his gun and muzzleloader tags with deer he kills with his bow every autumn.

And virtually every deer he takes comes from places where you can hear vehicle traffic, car horns, operating machinery and other noises typical of an urban environment.

Last year I wrote a story for Oklahoma Game & Fish magazine about a successful bowhunter who bagged a tremendous buck, a 16-pointer that grossed 169 inches, within the city limits of Tulsa.

A few years ago, I worked for the state wildlife department, managing its field office in Tulsa. Even though our office was not an official check station, many hunters brought their deer by to show them off or to ask for the location of a check station. There I saw many deer, including some darned fine trophy bucks, which were taken within the urban surroundings of Tulsa and its suburbs.

My son, who both works and attends college classes, doesn't have the luxury of a lot of free days that allow him to travel far from town to hunt. Instead, he squeezes in those short-duration, before-classes or after-work hunts in places that are close to home. And we live in the thick of a metro area that has nearly a million inhabitants. Last fall, he discovered a spot less than a mile from our home, as the crow flies, visible from a major urban expressway and surrounded by homes and businesses. There he pursued a trophy buck -- albeit unsuccessfully -- for the last few weeks of the season. But several times a week he saw the big buck, as well as a couple of lesser bucks and does, until the calendar ran out on him and he had to hang up his bow.

He had killed a nice buck during rifle season in a more rural setting, but I think he is more excited now about chasing those urban bucks than about picking off an easy buck with his rifle up on the prairies where we normally hunt with our rifles.

And I recall when a past state-record deer, one that scored 179 6/8, was killed by a bowhunter in the state's most populous county -- Oklahoma County, where Oklahoma City and several major suburbs are located.

What's my point? Only that successful deer hunting, even successful hunting for trophy bucks, is quite possible in urban areas. It isn't always necessary to drive 200 miles and camp in the sprawling forests in order to fill your freezer with venison or to hang a trophy rack over your mantle.

Biologists and hunters learned in the last 40 years that white-tailed deer are highly adaptive creatures that coexist pretty well with human activities. As long as deer have food and water, the only other requirement is a little bit of habitat. And while their "natural" habitat has always been considered to be the wilderness, we know now that deer cling to areas that are being subdivided and developed, so long as a little habitat remains.

Even in wilder areas, deer have benefited from human activity. Growing crops like winter wheat help nurture deer through the winters in areas where they once faced starvation, or at least difficulties finding food, during the colder months of the year.

And in urban settings, gardens and ornamental plantings and backyard fruit trees and similar changes introduced by humans sometime provide additional food for the local deer population.

Of course, hunting urban deer can be quite different from hunting them in sparsely developed rural counties.

First, there often are additional laws and regulations to deal with. But most large cities these days have their local ordinances displayed on Internet pages where hunters easily can learn what is allowed and what is prohibited. Granted, sometimes such ordinances can be a little difficult to interpret, but local police officers or municipal attorneys' offices generally can provide a simple interpretation.

I have not seen it done yet in Oklahoma, but in many states where urban hunting is encouraged and managed, city and county governments have established seasons and regulations applying specifically to urban deer.

Urban hunting has been re-introduced in some places where it was once banned. An increase of deer-vehicle collisions and similar problems has prompted numerous municipalities to employ sport hunters as urban deer population control.

Firearms hunting may not be allowed in larger cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and probably many others, as it is illegal to discharge firearms within city limits except at licensed places like shooting galleries or gun clubs. That means most urban deer hunting usually is limited to bowhunting.

Second, you will likely be hunting smaller tracts and small areas of habitat. It may be a narrow, wooded corridor along a creek or river, or a single undeveloped 20 acres surrounded by apartments and homes and commercial developments.

In the past two decades, I have watched the available habitat shrink and shrink in southern Tulsa County where there still are a handful of deer occupying fewer and fewer acres each year.

But it has concentrated the populations, so that now it is possible just about any day to see deer in some of those small areas by just strolling through them.

And I have seen some of those tracts posted as no-hunting areas because adjacent landowners like to watch or feed the deer and object to hunting, even bowhunting, of the deer residing near their homes.

But there still exist a number of tracts owned by public entities or by private speculators who are just waiting for the land to appreciate or for development opportunities to arise. And it is possible to hunt some of those public holdings or to get permission to hunt the private ones, even though it sometimes takes a little legwork or searching the county land ownership records at the courthouse to find out who the current owner is or how to contact them.

It also is more likely in urban areas that people engaged in other activities might disturb your hunts. And then there are hunters who do not have permission to hunt a given property and will come there to hunt and disturb the hunts of those who have gone through the trouble to obtain legal access.

So, urban hunting is not without frustrations. Still, if you live in an urban area, it can be nice to have nearby hunting opportunities that allow you to squeeze in those early-morning or late-afternoon hunts without having to waste hours d

riving to remote locations.

You might even be surprised at the quality of bucks you find in urban settings. Because firearms hunting is not allowed within the boundaries of most cities, bucks sometimes have a chance to grow a little older than they do in some heavily hunted rural areas, and so have a chance to survive into their prime years for exceptional antler development.

And because urban hunting is chiefly bowhunting, you have the longest season in which to pursue your sport. Currently, Oklahoma's archery deer season lasts three and a half months. Compare that with only nine days for muzzleloader season and 16 days for modern firearms season.

Please remember, if you bowhunt during either of the firearms seasons, observe the clothing requirements. Firearms hunters are required to wear a hat and upper-body garment displaying at least 400 square inches of blaze orange. And bowhunters afield during those seasons must wear either the blaze orange hat or upper body garment, even though they have no such requirements during the archery-only season.

So, how do you go about finding a good spot for urban deer hunting?

One tool I employed while trying to help my son find some local spots is the aerial photos or maps displayed on free Web sites like GoogleEarth or Google Maps or Mapquest. You can log on to one of those sites and type in the name of your city and view aerial photos taken in the recent past. In the aerial photos it is possible to find small, forested or undeveloped tracts in the middle of developed neighborhoods, sites that might not be apparent just by driving the nearby arterial streets and highways.

I ride a bicycle almost daily for exercise during warmer months, and for two years, I rode within 200 yards of a tract of about 80 acres that has a pretty good deer population. But because the woods were screened by rows of homes, I never realized the habitat was there. I found it while looking at Google Earth, and then found a dead-end street in a subdivision that terminated at a small creek that circled the tract on three sides. On my next bicycle ride, I stopped and hid my bike in the brush, then walked through the area. As soon as I crossed the creek and entered the woods, I found deer tracks and droppings and numerous old rubs and scrapes.

Then I went to the Tulsa Central Library to look at landowner records. Our library has access to an online records database, which I checked to find the name of the owner. It took a few days to actually track down the owner and ask for permission to hunt the property. The owner said he knew that others had hunted there in the past, but that no one had asked permission in years.

At first, he expressed a concern about liability. I offered to sign a release of liability and even asked if a small trespass fee or purchasing a liability insurance policy or bond would be an option.

After two phone conversations, and assurances that my son and I are responsible hunters and that we would bowhunt only and would take every caution not to disturb abutting property owners, he said to go ahead and hunt next year. He declined to give me an actual written letter of permission, saying that he feared that would only add to his liability, but said he would keep our names and would not press trespassing charges if we were ever challenged.

And he asked that we not smoke or light fires or build any tree stands. Because there are numerous tall, straight trees on the land, I think it will be easy to hunt with climbing stands.

He also told me the property is on the market and that he had turned down several offers for it, but that if the right offer came along, it could be sold and developed at any time.

But until it is developed, it remains one of those little pockets of urban deer habitat.

Urban deer sometimes act a little differently than their country cousins. But they aren't pushovers. They may be more accustomed to the sights and sounds of bustling human activity, but they still show alarm at human intrusions into their ever-shrinking territories.

They may not act the least bit nervous when joggers and bicyclists pass by on a bordering trail or a thousand cars a day whiz past the fenceline. But let a person walk into their bedding area or pass by upwind of the oak trees where they are feeding, and they'll soon prance around nervously and bound away, or the does will blow their alarms.

So, the use of camouflage, stealth, wind direction, and all the rest associated with "real" deer hunting can be just as important in urban settings as in rural ones. In fact, because urban hunting is usually archery hunting, it is probably more important. A rifle hunter often can kill any deer he sees within a couple of hundred yards. But a bowhunter must get much closer without being detected and without alarming the deer.

Yes, with today's flatter-shooting bows and carbon arrows some archers can shoot consistently at ranges of 50 or 60 yards, but for most of us, ranges of less than 30 yards are more practical. And the closer a deer comes, the tougher it is for a hunter to remain undetected until a good shooting opportunity arises.

Alert and observant urban hunters can sometimes take advantage of little habits and movement patterns. I have one acquaintance that hunted an area near the Arkansas River in southern Tulsa County for several years. When an industrial development project began on neighboring property, the site was busy during the fall with dozers and earthmovers and surveyors and all sorts of site-preparation work.

My friend noticed, though, that after the workers locked up their equipment and left in late afternoon, it was only a short time before the deer came out into the open to cross the disturbed area. So, he began timing his evening hunts to arrive shortly before "quitting time" at the site, so that he could be in place when the deer started coming out of the woods at the edge of the property where he had permission to hunt.

The use of food plots, feeders and other aids for attracting deer can be helpful in urban hunting, especially since as habitat shrinks, the resident deer have more difficulties finding their accustomed varieties of forbs, nuts and other foods. But it's also probably true that feeders, trail cameras, portable stands and other such equipment may be more likely to be disturbed or stolen in urban settings, so you may want to ensure that an area is satisfactorily secure before placing expensive equipment and leaving it in place.

And I believe urban hunters shoulder an additional responsibility of being as unobtrusive as possible, for there is a greater likelihood of non-hunters or anti-hunters passing by as a deer is being dragged from the woods or loaded into a vehicle. Offending others who may increase protests and seek prohibitions of urban hunting activity is never a good idea if you are a hunter.

So, finding an inconspicuous place to enter and leave the woods or to load deer into vehicles may be a good idea if you hope to preserve your oppo

rtunities for close-to-home deer hunting.

Even bowhunters should be observant and avoid confrontations with joggers or walkers or neighborhood children who may pass through the woods.

And safety is always a prime consideration. In an urban setting there is a much greater probability of humans and pets passing through the woods, so always make certain that movement or noise in the woods is a legitimate target and not a person or dog exploring the area.

Although urban deer hunting is a little different than hunting in, say, one of the wide-open counties of Western Oklahoma or in one of the forested, mountainous counties of Eastern Oklahoma, it can still be a good way to enjoy your sport, to put a little venison in the freezer, and even to bag a high-scoring trophy buck.

It just takes a little scouting and preparation to do it right.

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