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Missouri towns address urban deer problem

March 24, 2012 at 11:07 AM

The Associated Press

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) — It’s being done in small towns, like Fulton, Osage Beach and Moberly. Larger communities, too: Springfield, Columbia, the St. Louis suburban areas and all of metropolitan Kansas City.

The issue of urban deer hunting has landed in the lap of the Cape Girardeau City Council, beginning anew a process that has been repeated in communities across Missouri as officials almost everywhere have struggled with how best to manage deer encroachment into city boundaries.

Twenty-three cities in Missouri currently allow residents to participate in managed bow hunts to curtail growing deer populations that were blamed for an increase in deer-vehicle collisions and lawn destruction. Others are considering it, including Ballwin and Ellisville.

The communities that do allow such hunting dot the Missouri map, with one notable exception — Southeast Missouri.

“Yeah, that’s true,” said Joel Porath, a wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who also serves as chairman of the department’s urban deer task force. “It’s one of those things where typically it’s tailored around big cities. But it’s working in some smaller communities, too.”

Now, the debate is here, starting late last year when a citizens committee was appointed to study the issue. After six months of meetings, two resignations and a large public hearing, the group voted 4-1 to recommend bow hunting. The debate also spawned an oppositional group, Cape Friends of Wildlife, which says such hunts are inhumane and disagree that there is even a problem in town.

Officials in Cape Girardeau are trying to decide what’s next. The oppositional group has also encouraged its members to show up en masse to let the council know that not everyone wants urban bow hunting.

That’s happened in the other communities as well, said Porath, who made a presentation to the committee in October.

“There is a substantial number of communities that are in the exact same boat as Cape Girardeau,” Porath said. “They can do nothing and fight about it for years and the problem doesn’t go away. There’s not going to be some magic solution to deer problems because deer are going to continue to reproduce.”

During the discussions, Town and Country is often talked about as a town that has worked to reduce its deer population for years, though it has yet to implement resident archery hunting. Town and Country, an affluent town of about 10,000 is situated about 12 miles west of St. Louis, which has prompted some of the opponents in Cape Girardeau to dismiss it as an ill-suited example.

Still, in the 1990s, Town and Country realized it had a problem with deer. The city’s first attempt, with a partnership with the conservation department, was to do a research study involving trapping deer and move them to southern Missouri. Officials became concerned about the spread of disease and the survival rate wasn’t very high, so the department now prohibits moving deer.

The city did nothing for about nine years. Then, three years ago, city officials spent about $150,000 for a dual-method approach—sterilize 100 deer the first year and bring in a sharpshooting company called White Buffalo to shoot 112. The second year, the city sterilized 30 and the sharpshooters killed 75. Last month, the city paid $130,000 to White Buffalo to kill 288.

But, Town and Country did do something Cape Girardeau has yet to do—get an official deer count before it did anything, according Capt. Gary Hoelzer, a police captain there who was tasked with looking at the options. In December 2011, they had about 66 deer per square mile, which is well above the 20 deer per square mile that experts set as a trouble zone in urban areas.

Town and Country used a population estimation method called distance sampling, using a software program that projects an area’s density based on site surveys. They also considered allowing resident hunters to help stem the problem.

“But our deer population was such that bow hunting was probably not going to be a solution for us,” he said.

That may change soon, Hoelzer said, now that their efforts have reduced the number of deer there.

But officials also have seen some opposition from residents, he said.

“They’re the most vocal group,” he said. “A lot of people really support reducing the deer herd. They understand there’s an overpopulation. But in large part, they’re the silent majority.”

One elected city official there, however, doesn’t like the idea of bow hunting within the city limits. Al Gerber is a member of the city’s board of aldermen.

“Town and Country does not allow hunting and I don’t think we ever will,” he said. “We don’t like the idea of people roaming around, even if they’re somewhat trained, with bows or guns. If we’re going to have people in, we’re going to have professionals. I know it costs more, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

Other communities that have allowed urban bow hunting have seen varying degrees of success.

Independence, Mo., Mayor Don Reimal, where it was implemented three years ago, said urban deer hunting has been somewhat successful there. The city may even have to expand the program to keep up with the growing number of deer, he said. Their first ordinance allowed deer hunting on private property of 15 or more acres. This year, the city government is changing the ordinance to allow hunting on as little as five acres. Archery hunters there have to get permission from the property owner and have it on them if challenged, Reimal said.

“Our initial attempts helped, but not enough,” Reimal said. “We’re hopeful that making it legal on five acres will draw some more interest.”

Creve Coeur, Mo., began allowing archery hunting last October and hunters killed 19 deer without incident, even though they started halfway through the hunting season. Rolla, Mo., has been allowing it since 2009. Springfield, Mo., began last year, too. In the several suburbs of St. Louis, bow hunters reduce the number by more than 1,000 in St. Louis County each year, Porath said. In Kansas City, it’s allowed on private property owned by more than 115 landowners who have banded together to allow it.

Porath says he understands that it’s a tough decision for some communities and he understands why there is opposition.

“It’s because people care and I appreciate that,” he said. “There’s always two sides to every issue. ... People are passionate about deer—always have been, always will be. When there’s a lot of passion surrounding an issue like that, it can become volatile pretty quickly.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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