At Close Range

Suburbia solves its deer problem--efficiently, neatly, and discreetly

In Minnetonka, not far from the clusters of executive-style homes sprinkled across the bucolic countryside, the winter nights' quiet has lately been disrupted by bursts of gunfire. More than 150 rounds have been rattled off in this well-heeled suburb since early November, drawing scant notice from nearby residents. Each crack and echo signals the death of another whitetail deer.

For the animals, the end comes in the unlikely confines of one of the 50 or so rectangular steel cages scattered around the city. Most are hidden away in wooded recesses, often on park land, but many are placed on private property as well. Cobbled together from chain-link fencing, the traps are baited with corn--a sweet enticement to the whitetail's palette. Once a deer gets lured into a trap, it triggers a tripwire and a gate drops. Within hours, a contractor hired by the city inspects the site by dark. Armed with a small-caliber rifle, he takes the easy shot--right to the head--and thus reduces by one the ranks of an oversize herd that has been blamed for wreaking havoc on local gardens and roadways.

This faintly gothic tableau has become a rote though largely invisible, fact of life in Minnetonka. The city is one of 10 metro-area communities to receive permission from the Department of Natural Resources to cut the burgeoning deer population by some 1,100 animals this winter. In Minnetonka--now in its fifth year of deer reduction--the permit authorizes the killing of up to 250 animals by the end of March. So far, over 150 of the city's roughly 600-head herd have been captured and shot.

Even those who back the move admit that it's a grim business. "This is a program of trap and kill. We've always been direct about that," says Minnetonka mayor Karen Anderson. But Anderson acknowledges that the actual "kill" part of the equation remains, by design, out of the public eye. Shootings occur in the wee hours, between midnight and 6 a.m., the time when deer are most active and, by fortuitous coincidence, well before bleary-eyed commuters venture onto the roads.

An emphasis on discretion is written into Minnetonka's deal with the company hired to carry out the slaughter, Nuisance Animal Removal Service, a division of St. Paul-based Laughlin Pest Control. The contract, which pays $250 per dead animal--with no additional compensation for fetuses--requires that no deer be transported from kill sites during peak commuting times. (The contract also prohibits NARS from making unauthorized comment to the media; the company refused to discuss its work with City Pages.) Under protocol of the program, special care is taken to eliminate any unsightly mess--blood in the snow, stray viscera, etc.--before the carcasses are covered and hauled away. And if a passerby should happen upon the scene of an operation, NARS is obligated to report the contact to the city's police department.

"I don't know that anybody has witnessed it. The program is designed to be carried out when people aren't in the area," says Lt. Terry Belfanz, of the Minnetonka Police Department. "It's not that we're trying to hide it from the public. The public is aware this is going on, but it's a safety issue: We don't want to be discharging weapons when people are around."

Occasionally, traps are tampered with or vandalized. So far this year, only one has been damaged, says Belfanz, though when the program first started it wasn't uncommon to find broken traps in the snow--the handiwork, some have suggested, of animal-rights activists appalled by the bloodshed. Public complaints have declined as well. The mayor says her office has received just two phone calls from folks opposed to the policy in the past six months, adding that the majority of Minnetonka's citizenry has come to regard the deer management practices as unpleasant but necessary.

Perhaps that's because many residents, even those inclined to wax poetic over the whitetails' elegant appeal, view the herd as a nuisance. According to the aerial surveys conducted last spring, the suburb is now home to up to 34 deer per square mile--a figure that, despite five years of steady killing, remains well above the DNR's recommended target density of 15-25. (And, deer hunters may note with some envy, even that number exceeds that of many of the state's public hunting grounds.)

Jane Donovan, who lives with her husband in a heavily wooded subdivision near I-494, agreed this winter to let NARS place a trap on her property, though not without second thoughts. She likes watching the deer; she even laughs off the damage they inflict on her garden. "I really love animals. I care about them," Donovan says. But, she notes, the absence of controls on the growing herd seemed "unnatural and out of balance." The culling, she says, has worked: "We have fewer deer problems than we had before."

That's not to say there aren't still plenty of deer in the neighborhood--and, still, the usual and some unusual problems. One friend told Donovan of a neighbor whose deck collapsed after a herd gathered there to feed from the flower boxes. Awhile back, Donovan struck a deer while driving on Highway 7, resulting in a bad scare, a dead deer, and a car repair bill in the thousands.

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