HELENA, Mont. — Brown-eyed does, muscular bucks, and an assortment of fawns and yearlings have had the run of residential neighborhoods in this capital city, many for several generations.
Having lost any discernible fear of people, the deer chase paper deliverers, jump from bushes to roofs, terrorize dogs and drivers, and gobble up expensive gardens and landscaping.
Many of the city’s estimated 700 deer live their entire lives here, having their offspring under residents’ porches and decks. If left to their own devices, biologists say, the number of deer will grow as high as 1,200 by 2010.
But the deer’s reign is coming to a close.
The Helena Police Department recently began a program intended to reduce the adult deer population by 50 — more if the first phase is successful. Officers bait large net traps, called clover traps, with apples, grain and molasses.
Adult deer caught in the traps are killed instantly with a bolt gun, similar to the device used to kill cows in slaughterhouses. The animals are then taken to a state Fish, Wildlife and Parks center, butchered and their meat donated to the needy.
Seventeen animals have been captured so far, and 13 have been killed. Four fawns have been released.
Some residents are relieved the city has begun to cull the deer population, “It’s a dangerous situation waiting to happen,” said Jeff Spurlin, a chef who owns a creperie and lives in a historic home with a herd of six deer next to his kitchen window. “I’m really concerned about the children in the area.”
Others are adamantly opposed to the plan and see the presence of deer as a benefit of life in the mountains. “How many capitals in the country do we see deer on the grounds of the capitol?” asked James Rojo, owner of a local coffee shop. “I thought we were Montana. I haven’t been charged or attacked, and I walk my dogs every night.”
Mr. Spurlin said he was in his yard this summer and heard what sounded like a dogfight. “I heard a yipping and I saw a ball of fur bouncing up and down,” he said, describing Rikki, a bichon frisé belonging to Jean Baucus, mother of Senator Max Baucus. “A female deer had Rikki in her mouth, tearing at her with her hooves.”
Waving and shouting, Mr. Spurlin ran toward the deer, who dropped Rikki. The dog survived with minor wounds, but other dogs have been kicked and killed by deer.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes large-scale deer killing, saying Americans need to learn to live with the animals by, among other things, using deer-proof fencing, and garden plants that do not appeal to the animals.
“If there is an animal that compromises human safety, that individual animal should be removed,” said the director of the society’s urban wildlife programs, Don Hadidian, “but it shouldn’t be blamed on a population.”
Helena is far from the only city or town facing a crush of deer, the result of a decline in hunting, mild winters and housing developments that lure the animals to lush green gardens from semi-arid rural lands.
Across the country, from villages to cities the size of Minneapolis, deer are seen as a nuisance and are being dealt with in a variety of ways.
The North American Bowhunting Coalition has an urban deer hunting program in which hunters take deer in open spaces. A Connecticut company, White Buffalo, specializes in reducing deer herds using several approaches, including trained sharpshooters.
The urban landscape can be unfriendly to deer in other ways. Collisions between deer and automobiles are on the rise, and three deer cornered in a parking garage jumped three floors to their death.
When a buck threatened Zach Lukenbill on his paper route here three years ago, the 17-year-old climbed under a truck to escape. After about 20 minutes, the deer left and was later shot by game wardens.
Officials say the Helena task force considered many methods of reducing the herd, including firing bullet-borne birth control chemicals into deer, still in the experimental stage, and trapping and releasing the animals, which was judged too costly. This removal of 50 deer has been budgeted at $30,000.
Local officials say they have settled on the most humane, efficient method. “There were images in people’s mind of Bambi dying on the streets,” said Matthew Cohn, a co-chairman of the task force. “But this will show them it’s not the case.”