Deer, hunted by humans in the wild, are taking their revenge by annexing territory and vexing humans within Durango city limits.
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said, “People always ask, ‘Why don’t you guys do something about the deer?’ But there’s not much we can do, except help people chase deer out of their yards,” he said.
He said Parks and Wildlife studies wild deer only on public lands.
“We don’t look at urban, town deer. They just don’t fit into our biological models,” he said.
In Southwest Colorado, the number of deer living on wildlands has sharply declined. Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists estimate that statewide, the deer population has decreased 36 percent, culled by tough winters and coyotes, with herds living near Mesa Verde especially hard hit.
While the agency has no hard numbers, anecdotally, deer – lured by Durango’s free, all-you-can-eat salad bar (human residents’ gardens) – are thriving in the city, where water is plentiful and predators are scarce.
“These deer don’t migrate up to the high country. These deer stay in town, have their young here, eat here, sleep here,” Lewandowksi said.
Meanwhile, in the last decade, deer have overrun towns across the country. Cities in Ohio, Washington and New York have fought back by hiring sharpshooters to cull downtown deer populations.
Lewandowski said in Durango, such a measure would require approval by Durango City Council because “it involves discharge of firearms within city limits.”
Less drastic policy solutions to Durangoans’ deer-induced headaches remain elusive. Chris Nelson, director of La Plata County Human Society, said he would like to see Durango Police Department take a stronger stance on deer misbehavior, though he acknowledged such a task’s inherent difficulty.
“I’d love to see Durango police try to ticket a deer,” he said. “But I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get all those guys from parking ticketing those deer.”
Some say that our downtown deer are a friendly, respectable species attempting to raise offspring in better circumstances than the ones they left, but others are fearful.
Holly Jobson, who lives on East Third Avenue, said Durango’s downtown deer “are brazen.”
“They’re bad neighbors, very aggressive. They shouldn’t be in town. But what can you do? They come after you, especially if your dog’s with you. And they’ve gotten way more aggressive and more numerous in these last few years.”
Many people interviewed by The Durango Herald told horror stories: deer ravaging gardens, savaging dogs, trespassing on private property, setting up residence in East Third Avenue yards and resisting eviction.
Lewandowski said “it’s not like we have a bunch of vicious deer out there.”
Durango’s downtown deer “aren’t domesticated. They’re still wild. Their behavior is natural for any animal defending its young or feeling threatened,” he said.
But East Fourth Avenue resident Jim Coloff said the problem is worsening.
“In my 30 years here, we’ve never had deer problems like in the last few years. These aren’t cute little Bambi fawns. They’re very aggressive. They’ve pretty much taken over town. They think they run it,” he said.
Coloff said last week, he and his wife, Janet, were terrified when a deer attacked them on their morning walk to Fort Lewis College. He said the event wasn’t isolated. They’d seen deer charge at humans on the sidewalk outside the Mason Center and the Smiley Building on East Third Avenue.
Many people, especially tourists, feel affinity for deer, the iconic Western animal.
“People with Arizona plates see deer in town and snap photos, thinking the whole thing is absolutely charming, ‘They’re so majestic,’” said Mike Smedley, vice president of Bank of the San Juans and a Herald columnist.
“But they’re rats with hooves. Deer were up on my deck the other day – lounging. That’s my job,” he said.
Smedley is convinced humans are feeding the downtown deer because when he launches rocks at them, far from getting ruffled, the deer just sniff the stones hopefully.
“They think it’s a sandwich,” he said.
Smedley, an avid gardener, said he has spent “a small fortune” erecting elaborate fencing to keep deer from eating his plants, “but even with a 6-foot-fence, I just wonder.”
Gardens aren’t the only victim. Smedley said the other day, deer trampled a neighbor’s dog to death.
Lewandowski recalled a deer killing another dog a few years ago.
Still, deer boast some local supporters. Ryan Phelps, owner of Hood Mortuary on East Third Avenue, said a deer family occupies the mortuary’s front yard. Though fawns frequently stare into first-floor windows, they’ve neither gorged on the flowerbeds nor ever interfered with hearse traffic.
He said if anything, he’d witnessed people be aggressive toward his Third Avenue deer tenants. On one occasion, he had to threaten to call the police when camera-wielding, belligerent college students began harassing a momma and her fawns as they tried crossing the road.
“Overall, the deer are the best neighbors I’ve ever had,” Phelps said. “No loud parties.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly located Jim Coloff’s residence. He lives on East Fourth Avenue.