Wisconsin's Deer Dilemma

Wisconsin's Deer Dilemma

Whitetails are getting hit by vehicles at an alarming rate across our state, and hired sharpshooters are killing suburban critters. Are we ever going to get our deer problem under control?

This doe was hit this summer on busy State Highway 42/57 just south of the bridge over the ship canal in Door County. Sturgeon Bay, like many urban areas, has an overabundance of deer, causing vehicle crashes and property damage.
Photo by www.dansmalloutdoors.com

The massive rack of a 10-point whitetail buck hangs above the desk of Ricky Lien, urban wildlife ecologist for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. Lien wishes that he or another hunter might have had a chance to shoot that buck during the hunting season, but it was hit by a car in a Milwaukee County park.

Today, it's hard to find a place in Wisconsin that doesn't have deer. In the past two decades, deer have moved into communities statewide, and it looks as if they are there to stay. While some folks welcome deer in the suburbs, others do not. Deer management in urban areas -- where hunting might not be an option and citizens' viewpoints are diverse -- has become one of the more controversial wildlife management problems of our time.

The only full-time person in the state charged with this fight, Lien is a crusader whose mission is to help Wisconsin understand its new urban deer dilemma and what can be done about it.

GROWING PAINS

A 1929 Wisconsin Conservation Department survey estimated our state's deer population at less than 30,000. Conservation wardens thought 21 counties had no deer at all! Fast forward to the 21st century, when DNR estimates put the whitetail population at, give or take, 1.5 million going into each fall hunting season.

Hunters love the abundance of deer, but many still complain that there aren't enough of them where they hunt. Meanwhile, deer have become a nuisance in back yards and city parks, and on our highways. There are simply so many deer in Wisconsin that they have spilled out of their natural habitat into places less wild, but where they find everything they need.

"Deer are adaptable," said DNR big-game ecologist Keith Warnke. "In the absence of predation, they can live with people and they can do so in high densities."

Deer are moving in on people, but people are also encroaching on deer. Many older Wisconsin communities have abundant green space in the form of parks, river corridors and large back yards, which provide both food and habitat for deer. And as communities grow, they expand into former farmland or forestland, which is already good deer habitat.

At a recent national conference, Lien asked his Texas counterpart how the Lone Star State deals with urban deer issues. He was surprised to learn that, despite that state's huge deer herd, Dallas doesn't have a deer problem because Dallas/Fort Worth is "concrete from one end to the other."

Deer look at bluegrass lawns, ornamental shrubs, gardens and spilled seed at bird feeders as a source of food. Add to that the fact that feeding deer within view of backyard decks has become a major form of entertainment that has spawned an entire support industry, and it's no wonder that deer have moved into town to stay.

Deer are prolific, which compounds the problem. A deer herd can expand by a factor of 1.5 annually. In the absence of predators such as bears and wolves, there is no natural way to control deer numbers. The DNR allows hunting statewide, but many local ordinances prohibit the discharge of firearms and bows for safety reasons, thus shutting hunters out of areas where deer numbers are growing.

"Many of our urban areas are heaven for deer," said Lien. "If you remove our No. 1 management tool -- hunting -- you've got an even better heaven. Combine basic deer biology with the kind of landscape they like and then remove hunting, and the table is set for an explosion in deer numbers."

Some communities in southeast Wisconsin have well over 100 deer per square mile. This number is four or five times too large for natural deer range. In a municipal area, it can be catastrophic.

In the Sheboygan County village of Kohler, for instance, deer were seen walking down residential streets at night, giving birth in backyards and munching flower gardens in broad daylight. Deer-car collisions in this village of 2,000 averaged 65 a year from 2000 through 2002. Many residents gave up trying to plant gardens, and they wrapped snow fence and burlap around their besieged ornamental shrubs in winter to keep deer from browsing them down to stumps.

Just how big a problem is this? No one knows for sure.

"I don't think we can put a number on the urban areas experiencing deer problems," said Warnke, who points out that the Fox River Valley, for instance, now forms one large urban area from Green Bay to Oshkosh. "All our major urban areas from Superior to Kenosha have localized or more widespread concerns with white-tailed deer populations."

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Deer eating your grandmother's flowers are one thing, but deer in the headlights are quite another. Raise your hand if you have not hit a deer while driving. Despite the fact that I watch out for them, I have hit three in Wisconsin in the past 22 years.

Keith Knapp, director of the Department of Transportation-sponsored Deer Vehicle Collision Information Clearinghouse, points out that deer-car collisions have increased dramatically over the past 30 years. In Green Lake, Shawano and Waushara counties, deer collisions accounted for over half the reported accidents in 2004.

"In 1978, deer were a factor in about 5 percent of vehicle crashes in Wisconsin," Knapp said. "That percentage jumped to about 15 percent by 1993 and has remained at about that level since then."

Many crashes result in human injuries or fatalities. The 689 people injured and 11 killed in 2004 totaled 130 more than in 1993. About half the fatalities occur when drivers try to avoid hitting a deer, Knapp said. A cousin of mine died several years ago when his son swerved to avoid hitting a deer at night and plowed into a roadside tree.

Remarkably, most collisions with deer go unreported. In the last few years, reported deer crashes in Wisconsin have averaged about 20,000, while DNR and DOT deer carcass counts have averaged about 45,000. The discrepancy is even greater in other states. In Minnesota, there are four or five times more deer carcasses on highways than reported deer-car collisions. Regardless of the actual numbers, it's clear that deer constitute a major hazard to drivers, and not just in rural ar

eas.

Knapp's Web site,

www.deercrash.com, offers a wealth of information on deer-car collisions in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois, and a "toolbox" of countermeasures that range from deer whistles to repellents and high-tech driver-warning systems that flash lights when large animals step onto roadways.

"Most of these countermeasures are in the 'pilot' phase," Knapp acknowledges. "We really don't have good data on which methods work."

Knapp said people are just beginning to take a multidisciplinary approach to this problem that involves both transportation and ecology. Efforts to keep deer off roadways today are at about the same level of development as efforts in the 1960s to make roadsides safer for vehicles that stray from roadways, he said.

"Back then most people in the transportation industry believed that if cars ran off the road, that was just too bad," Knapp said. "Some people today say hitting deer on the road is just part of living in Wisconsin. I don't agree."

Knapp's annual national symposium on deer-car crashes is slated for Oct. 24-25 in Madison. He hopes to set a national agenda for attacking the deer/car problem over the next several years. Wisconsin's DOT is a national leader in this effort, Knapp said, but even here results have been slow in coming.

Meanwhile, Knapp said, the best thing a driver can do is be aware that deer move more at dawn and dusk, and that most accidents occur during the fall breeding season and in June.

THE METRO UNIT SKIRMISH

The DNR fired the first salvo in Wisconsin's urban deer war with the establishment of metro deer management units in 1992. That year, units 59M (La Crosse), 76M (Madison) and 77M (metro Milwaukee) were created. Units 60M (Hudson) and 64M (Green Bay) followed in 1996, and Unit 1M (Superior) in 2001.

These metro units were carved out of existing deer management units where regular season frameworks and rules were not removing enough deer. Metro unit season dates and regulations have changed over the years, but they remain more liberal than the statewide rules. Unlimited antlerless permits are available in all metro units. Some metro unit boundaries have gradually expanded outward in response to urban sprawl and the increase in deer numbers. Unit 77M, for instance, now runs along the Lake Michigan shore from the Illinois line into Manitowoc County.

Managers say the metro unit system is partially successful. The overwinter population goal for metro units is 10 deer per square mile, but every unit is over goal. The extended season and extra permits provide additional hunting opportunities, but in every metro unit, there are refuges where deer go and hunters can't get at them. Clearly, more help is needed to control urban deer numbers.

MANAGING PEOPLE & DEER

Every wildlife biologist gets calls now and then from irate citizens imploring him or her to "do something" about the deer eating their shrubs. Aside from suggesting that the callers plant shrubs deer don't like, about all the biologists can do is tell them to contact their local elected officials. Ricky Lien probably fields more of these calls than anyone else. He said action must start at the community level.

The first step is to assess whether there is a problem. Lien helps communities establish a deer management advisory committee to survey residents, determine the scope of the problem and recommend management strategies. The decision on what to do is usually made by local government.

Lien, who works out of the DNR's Plymouth Service Center, or another biologist will meet with the committee and help them work through the complex issues surrounding deer management in an urban setting. The solution boils down to this: if you have too many deer in your community, get rid of some of them. Communities must understand that while the deer belong to the people of the state, controlling them within municipal boundaries is a local problem and must be done at local expense.

Where feasible, hunting is the preferred solution. It is also the cheapest. Often, however, other removal methods are the only reasonable option. Communities that choose that route apply for a DNR permit to remove deer. Some opt to ban recreational deer feeding, while others resist upsetting citizens who enjoy this practice.

Some communities choose to live-trap the excess deer, which are then taken to a slaughterhouse. Before the advent of chronic wasting disease, some live-trapped deer were sold to game farms, but that is now illegal. Other communities use sharpshooters, either local police officers or professionals from companies that specialize in animal control. Shooting is done at night from elevated stands, usually in winter when there is snow cover to aid in seeing deer. The carcasses are then given to food pantries or offered to citizens at no cost. Some communities offer to test deer for CWD before giving them away.

An urban deer workshop in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum filled every chair in the place. Biologists talked about deer biology, chronic wasting disease and why people get excited about deer. Lien discussed non-lethal controls, hunting and sharpshooting as control options. Participants looked at deer-proof fencing, sniffed deer repellents and listened to a propane cannon and a high-powered rifle fired with and without a silencer. Lien hopes to put on another workshop this year somewhere in northern Wisconsin.

One of the hardest questions to answer, Lien said, is how many deer should a community have? There is no biologically right number, he said. A community needs to determine how many deer its citizens are willing to tolerate. One southeast Wisconsin municipality has over 60 deer per square mile of habitat, but few car-deer accidents or citizen complaints, so officials don't believe they have a problem. Another community aggressively manages it deer population to near 25 per square mile.

"Deer management is more effective when done on a large, community-wide scale, rather than on a single private parcel or park," Lien said. "If a whole municipality has a deer problem, but you're only removing deer from one small property, you probably won't solve the problem."

Lien also pointed out that removing all the deer from a municipality is not an option because studies show most people value the presence of wildlife in urban areas.

"Deer are part of the natural community," he said. "Even if it is an urban community."

Communities are encouraged to implement a plan to bring deer numbers down to a tolerable level and make a long-term commitment to stay with it, rather than try to reduce deer numbers for the short term, and then allow the herd to grow out of control again.

COMMUNITIES IN ACTION

Many local governments are reluctant to do anything about urban deer until residents complain loudly enough. Some are more enlightened.

A number of municip

alities have relaxed weapons-discharge ordinances to give hunters more access to urban deer. Germantown, Menomonee Falls, Mequon and several other Milwaukee-area communities allow deer hunting under special permits issued by local police departments. Some allow bowhunting only, while some allow firearms options. Lien admits he doesn't know of all the communities that have done this, since no special DNR permit is required.

When it was first proposed in some Milwaukee-area communities 15 years ago, the use of sharpshooters to remove deer met with considerable protest. Gradually, communities have embraced lethal control methods, and protests have subsided. Last year, deer removal permits were issued to 32 municipalities, 20 airports and two nature centers across Wisconsin. Some communities removed a handful of deer, while others took out 100 or more.

Mequon has used sharpshooters since 1998 in the eastern, more developed portion of the city. The city budgets $10,000 annually for helicopter surveys and a contractor, Urban Wildlife Specialists of Spring Green. The venison is given to landowners or by lottery to city employees.

"Shooting is done over bait in public parks, private fields and on residential property between sundown and 10 p.m. in winter," said Mequon Police Sgt. Paul Neumyer. "Last year, we shot 68 deer. The year before, about 50."

Brookfield has employed sharpshooters and live-trapping for four years with similar results. The city budgets $25,000 annually for a helicopter survey and deer removal. Bill Kolstad, Brookfield's director of parks, recreation and forestry, said contractors removed 64 deer last winter. Both Mequon and Brookfield have seen a reduction in citizen complaints and car-deer accidents since their programs began.

In Dane County -- which led the state in deer-car crashes again last year with 1,007 -- a hospital, city parks, a nursery, the county airport, the city of Middleton and the UW Arboretum all use sharpshooters. Dane County wildlife biologist Marine Rowe said there was opposition to killing deer initially, but that citizens have become adjusted to it. She said it has become risky to ride a bike at night in parts of the county.

"I'd like them to take out more deer," said Rowe. "But they do what is socially acceptable."

Farther north, Wisconsin Rapids and several nearby communities have begun removing deer by permit. The city of Superior's deer management program includes a hotspot deer-reduction program using trained volunteer bowhunters to remove deer from August through April. The 40 volunteers took 76 deer in 2003 and 162 in 2004. The cities of Washburn and Ashland have also formed deer committees and are working on a management plan.

Marinette police sharpshooters removed over 100 deer in the first two years of that city's program, and 20 to 30 per year since. Even the tiny city of Niagara on the border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula has a deer problem each winter when deep snow drives huge numbers of deer into the Menominee River valley. So far, an extended archery season has been the only management tool there.

The war is on, but so far, like the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the deer just "keep a comin'." As more communities around Wisconsin recognize they have too many deer, Ricky Lien's calendar will continue to fill with meetings. One can only wish him safe travels as he drives our deer-infested highways from town to town, bringing help for planning and hope for control. He certainly doesn't need another big rack to hang over his desk.

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