At Close Range

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

That's a relatively common occurrence. In 1996, motorists in Minnetonka hit 160 deer. That figure rose to 168 a year later, but, owing to more trap-and-kills, dropped to 147 last year. Average damages to vehicles are calculated at between $2,500 and $3,000 per accident. Of course, deer-related roadway mayhem is not just a problem in Minnetonka. According to the DNR, there are about 4,000 car-deer collisions in the seven-county area annually, and around 15,000 statewide. Nationwide, various experts estimate that accidents involving deer result in up to 200 human fatalities annually, around 29,000 nonfatal injuries, and nearly $1 billion in damage to vehicles.

Suburbia, it turns out, appeals to whitetail deer for many of the same reasons it appeals to its ever-expanding human population. With a mix of big wooded lots, rolling terrain, wetlands, and ample swaths of parkland, Minnetonka, like many affluent second-ring suburbs, offers a perfect "mosaic of habitat" for whitetail, according to Katherine DonCarlos, an urban wildlife specialist with the DNR. In addition, vegetable gardens and ornamental plantings provide the animals with a veritable buffet, offering foodstuffs that are more nutritious and more attractive than much indigenous flora. And so, in the absence of natural predators--wolves, coyotes, and bears disappeared long ago from the area--deer have prospered in Minnetonka. "The only predator you've got out here has four tires on it and weighs a couple thousand pounds. That's what kills deer," Belfanz notes wryly.

Common suburban deer-removal methods fall into two categories, both approved by the DNR: "Trap and shoot," as practiced in Minnetonka, and open-field sharpshooting. In Eden Prairie, parks and natural resources manager Stuart Fox says that a citizens' committee rejected trap and shoot because of worries over adding the stress of confinement to the animals' extermination. Instead, over the past five years, sharpshooters--firing over baited fields--have killed a total of 590 deer. "We try to do it very discreetly," Fox says. "And it's done in a most humane way. The deer are killed instantly." In Minnetonka, Belfanz says, the city has employed sharpshooters in the past, but, because of safety concerns arising from the use of high-powered rifles in more densely developed areas, has come to favor trap and kill for most locations.

In Minnesota, nonlethal herd-management methods have been eschewed as either too impractical or too expensive, though they have been tried elsewhere. An experimental birth-control technique, known as immunocontraception, has proved to work, though it is somewhat unwieldy. The method requires that biologists administer the vaccine to does with a barbless dart twice in a month's time, plus an annual booster shot. Try that on a 600-strong herd of suburban-ranging deer.

Another alternative--capturing and then relocating the deer--has drawbacks as well, DonCarlos says. First, of course, there is the issue of expense, which can run upwards of $500 per deer. What's more, trapped deer are susceptible to a fatal condition known as capture myopathy, a stress-related buildup of lactic acid in the muscles which induces a form of paralysis. Studies have shown that captured deer not afflicted with the myopathy often die following relocation anyway. And so, the "management" of suburban deer herds generally emanates from a gun barrel.

In the end, most of the animals wind up on the dinner table. In St. Louis Park, at the Emergency Food Shelf, a distribution hub for a network of 27 local charities, donated venison steaks, chops, and ground meat have come as welcome additions to the pantry, "Oh yeah, people love it," says John Mitchell, the food shelf's warehouse director. "We had about 5,000 pounds of deer meat and it's mostly all gone." Given the problematic relationship between the deer and their suburban neighbors, however, Mitchell can probably expect another shipment soon.

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