At Close Range

Christopher Henderson

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.

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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