We certainly have an urban deer problem in Ennis, but it wasn’t always this way. When I first started fishing here in 1972 you never (hardly) saw a deer in town. They were spooked by people, cars, dogs and kids on bikes. Nowadays, we have deer everywhere…in the streets, alleys, driveways, lawns, gardens…I even saw a mule deer buck gassing up at the Town Pump! While mule deer populations are declining across the state, they are increasing in urban areas. If you want to grow a garden in town, ya gotta put up a fence…a high one! We even have mule deer and whitetails co-mingling in town…something you never see in the wild. And don’t forget the moose!

At our recent Science Fair, an Ennis fifth grader used town deer for his project. He compared the effects of rural vs. urban environments on the mule deer population. He found that the rural deer are generally healthier than urban deer. Why, then, are rural deer leaving home and moving to the city? Strictly for better groceries? Lilacs. chokecherries, and crabapples? In town the deer have barking dogs, traffic, tourists and ornery landowners to deal with. Yet they just seem to roll with it, unfazed…making the rounds from house to house like so many trick-or-treaters.

This same, strange phenomena is happening in cities and towns all across Montana. It’s a head scratcher. Towns are dealing with the issue in different ways. Here in Ennis, we are dealing with it the old-fashioned way…by doing nothing…just let ’em eat, rub and defecate all over town. Fruit trees and hollyhocks are being devoured non-stop. Your roses have no chance. Your vegetable garden? Gone in one day. In addition…the bucks love to get all horned up during the rut and tear your caragana shrubs to pieces! I’m guessing deer control is not a top priority with our Town Commissioners or law enforcement…they have better things to do. I can’t really blame them. There is a certain perverse charm to it, though…watching the little fawns dodge traffic…or the horny bucks mounting does in your backyard. I’m sure all the new folks in town find it entertaining. As for me, I’ll stop complaining for now. I’m headed out behind the house to rake some deer poop.

More Montana communities sign up for deer management plans

Seeking more insight into Montana’s mule deer, a new study is comparing herds across the state.

Despite mule deer populations declining across portions of Montana recently, an increasing number of communities have approached the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to create urban deer management plans.

The plans were authorized by legislation in 2003. Colstrip and Helena were the first to adopt the process, but utilize different means to lower urban deer populations. In Helena, deer are trapped and then euthanized. Colstrip has hosted an annual archery hunt since 2006.

Traffic stops for urban deer on Main Street in Lewistown recently. The community is one of 13 in Montana with a deer management plan.LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

Different towns, different plans

Since 2008, Helena has removed 1,158 deer under its management plan, according to an annual report it provides to FWP. The city estimated 30,000 to 35,000 pounds of venison have been donated to food banks over the course of the program.

Using archery hunters, the community of Roundup along the Musselshell River has removed 61 deer since 2014, with an average success rate of 12%. In its 2022 report to FWP, the community said the number of complaints of aggressive deer and deer-vehicle collisions has dropped since the hunt was initiated.

In Fort Benton last winter, 50 deer were shot by the town’s police. In 2003, the community offered a late-season hunt in which 185 deer were killed, some of which were shot by game wardens.

In Havre, which started an urban deer hunt last year, regional FWP biologist Scott Hemmer was uncertain how many animals had been shot by hunters, adding it was nominal. The city removed seven deer last year that were donated to the Havre food bank.

Expanded to 14 towns

Fourteen communities now have urban deer plans in Montana, including: Circle, Lewistown, Fort Benton, White Sulphur Springs, Roundup, Havre, Glendive, Libby, Ekalaka, Jordan, Geraldine, Philipsburg, Helena and Colstrip.

Commissioners for Anaconda-Deer Lodge County recently voted to establish a task force to consider an urban wildlife management plan.

Not all of the towns have implemented lethal removal of deer and for those that have, records weren’t available for all communities. Yet the reason behind the plans is always the same.

“They all deal with public safety issues,” said Brian Wakeling, FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief.

That’s required under the state’s statute and often applies to situations like aggressive deer injuring or threatening humans and pets, or vehicle-deer collisions. According to research published in 2022 in the journal “Current Biology,” about 2.1 million deer-vehicle collisions occur each year in the United States, causing more than $10 billion in economic losses, 59,000 human injuries and 440 deaths.

A herd of six deer gathered on First Street West near downtown Billings in 2015.LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

Deer populations declining

According to FWP’s annual deer survey areas, about 50 out of 138 hunting districts have mule deer populations more than 25% below the long-term average with fewer than 20 fawns per 100 adults. The trend seems concentrated in the middle of the state as well as the northwest, mainly in FWP management Regions 1, 2, 4 and 5.

Statewide, the mule deer population in 2023 was estimated at more than 255,900, 17% below the long-term average. In comparison, white-tailed deer numbers were estimated at more than 193,400 in 2022, down 6% from the long-term average. The biggest drop in whitetail and mule deer populations was in Region 7, both of which are almost half of recent high points.

In its Adaptive Harvest Management plan, updated in 2021, FWP noted, “Changes in habitat conditions, competition with other ungulates, and/or predation rates may have greater impacts on populations than hunting season regulations. It may not be feasible to return a population to a higher level through hunting season adjustments without changes to other limiting factors.”

Urban vs. rural

Why do deer populations seem to thrive in some communities while declining in rural areas?

The reasons could be several, including that towns provide protection from predators as well as access to irrigated foods, whereas outlying areas may suffer from drought and a loss of habitat. Research has also shown that female deer entering winter in poorer health are more likely to not birth fawns, or give birth to unhealthy fawns.

Communities are also often built in prime wildlife habitat, along rivers and streams, Wakeling noted. Large undeveloped urban parks also provide homes for deer and other critters. Unfortunately, some residents feed wildlife, which is against state law but difficult to enforce.

“People want to be able to experience wildlife, but there are different tolerances,” Wakeling said.

FWP takes action

In early January, FWP announced it was seeking nominations to an advisory council to help with the rewriting of its mule deer management plan. The goal is to have a new plan completed by the end of 2024.

In December, the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to ban all mule deer doe hunting in Eastern Montana’s Regions 6 and 7, except on Block Management Areas and private lands.

Last legislative session, a bill was passed limiting nonresident hunters to only two mule deer doe tags. In the past, up to seven could be purchased in some hunting districts.

A wealth of information on Montana deer populations, hunter harvest and research can be found on FWP’s website at https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/deer.