Deer are a touchy subject in Durango and other communities around the country. Some people love them, some people hate them, some people could not care less.
But for many homeowners in the city limits, who are suffering expensive property damage as the ungulates treat their lawns, bushes and trees as an all-you-can-eat buffet, there doesn’t seem to be any recourse in sight beyond making or buying deer repellent to spray on their plants.
That’s because the homeowners are caught between the city and the state of Colorado.
The deer belong to the state, but the state doesn’t monitor numbers or deer health inside the city limits, said Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. City Manager Ron LeBlanc told resident Andree Stetson at a City Council meeting in May that Durango does not have any authority in the matter.
But that might not be true.
Elizabeth: A case study
Several years ago, the town board of Elizabeth, which is southeast of Denver, began looking at the issue. Elizabeth has a population of more than 1,400 and covers about 1 square mile. To date, it is the only town in Colorado that has taken on a deer-culling program, but numerous communities across the country have begun deer-management efforts.
“We had been getting complaints for some time, complaints about deer eating gardens, eating trees, knocking down fences, getting hit by cars,” Town Administrator Dick Eason said. “The state has a regulation against feeding deer, but it doesn’t have many teeth, so the first thing we did was enact an ordinance against feeding or watering deer.”
The ordinance was accompanied by an education program, he said, about what deer don’t like to eat and minimizing the attractiveness of plantings to deer. The deer population continued to thrive, so Eason was tasked with looking into other programs that might make a difference. Several towns across the country have hired professional hunters to come in to cull the deer population, he said.
“There was a town outside St. Louis that was spending about $200,000 a year to get deer out of its parks that way, but that was out of our price range,” he said.
Working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, he looked at birth-control methods, which are expensive.
“First, they were approved for white-tailed deer, not mule deer, and we have mostly mule deer,” he said. “Then, Parks and Wildlife was concerned about what would happen if those deer ended up on a hunter’s table. Do we want people eating that?”
Trapping and transporting would require tranquilizing the deer, having a veterinarian on scene throughout, finding someone to take them, and it comes with a 50 percent mortality rate, he said.
So, the town decided to set up a highly controlled program with volunteer hunters.
“We set the safety bar high and set the deer count fairly low,” Eason said. “We selected three properties owned by the town that were fairly out of sight. We didn’t want to make a spectacle out of it, because some people in town are very fond of deer and very opposed to the program.”
Approved hunters were allowed to use bows and arrows or crossbows during the state’s regular bow-hunting season. They needed to pass stringent prowess tests and get a hunting tag from the state before being approved. Out of the 15 who applied, five were given tags by the town after passing the tests, with a goal of culling 15 deer.
Each hunter was allowed to keep one deer, because they were bearing the expense of the license and equipment, Eason said. Several whole animals were donated to low-income families, and several others were processed, with costs covered by donors, and the meat was donated to food banks in Douglas and Elbert counties.
A program manager stayed in touch with the hunters.
“They were required to text the program manager when they were on site and within 15 minutes of taking a deer,” Eason said.
Was it a success?
“I would say so,” Eason said. “On Tuesday, the Town Board approved a proposal to do it again this year, with a goal of culling 20 deer.”
It’s hard to measure success when so much of the expense is born by homeowners and drivers.
“We only have one body shop in town, and he said he hasn’t seen any impact to his business yet,” Eason said. “We would expect to see a difference over time, but of course, he hopes we don’t.”
How much opposition was there from the people who like the deer?
“Last year, they mounted a real campaign, and we had all the television stations from Denver here,” he said. “This year, there was nothing.”
No way to measure
There’s no deer count within the city limits.
“The does in my neighborhood all had fawns this spring, and several had twins,” said Andree Stetson, who lives in East Animas City and tried taking her concerns to the Durango City Council in May. “So, it looks like the population is growing rapidly.”
That’s just an anecdote, but Lewandowski said the wildlife experts in his division have noticed that once deer discover easy access to water and food, added to a lack of their natural predators in towns, they tend to move in for good.
There’s no way to conduct an actual deer census, Eason said, but Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends taking a count in January and February. Volunteers in Elizabeth did a count on three routes in town, during June/July in 2014 and January/February this year.
Other Colorado towns have considered similar programs. In 2007, Alamosa approved a culling program after the rise in car-deer accidents and aggressive deer began killing pets in their own yards, Lewandowski said, but the town stepped back from it after the controversy became too intense. In February, the Salida City Council said it did not plan to move forward on an urban deer bow-hunting program, but Eason, who spoke with the councilors via conference call, said he got the impression they might revisit the subject in 2016.