Mule deer pause their lawn lunch on Schofield St Monday, April 24. Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Pincher Creek’s deer problem calls for clearly identified, consistently applied control measures backed by popular consensus, according to Mark Heckbert, wildlife conflict specialist with Alberta’s environment ministry.

Deer problems often become political problems because wildlife management is likely to be controversial among voters anywhere in North America. At the same time, wildlife management isn’t free, and will always present some risk to animals.

Deer conflicts were addressed before town council in March and again this month, when the Oldman Rose Society asked for deer fencing at its rose garden next to Lebel Mansion at 696 Kettles St.

Senior wildlife biologist Maria Didkwosky is working on a potential management plan to include a public education component, according to town council’s March 1 committee of the whole agenda. 

Oh, deer! Here we go again 

“The situation in Pincher Creek is that [the town and MD’s resident mule deer] have grown pretty steadily in the last number of years,” Heckbert said April 18. 

Pincher Creek’s resident mule deer numbered close to 100 as of this winter, according to Didkowsky’s January headcount in and around town limits.

Heckbert estimated that the herd was somewhere between 30 and 40 strong in November 2018, when the town deployed a “strategic hazing program” where deer were scared off by a professional dog handler. The program lasted through the following April, temporarily scattering deer that encountered the on-leash dog and its professional handler. 

“But [the program] did not reduce deer numbers in town,” Didkowsky wrote in an email last week.

Mule deer are voracious eaters, known to devour town and MD residents’ gardens — especially rose gardens. 

Asked about the rose society’s difficulties at Lebel Mansion, Heckbert suggested a high perimeter fence, regardless of population trends.  

“It doesn’t matter if it’s two deer eating roses or 20 — the damage is going to be the same,” he said. 

Sgt. Ryan Hodge, detachment commander at Pincher Creek RCMP, said his Mounties are sometimes called to motor vehicle collisions involving deer. Local residents have called 911 asking for officers to dispatch badly injured deer — scenarios Hodge said are best left to trained wildlife officials. 

Heckbert said mule deer can become aggressive towards people and pets during rutting and fawning seasons and whenever the animals feel cornered. 

Urban deer also attract predators, including cougars and coyotes. The risk to people is fairly low, but these predator species are known to eat cats and small dogs. 

“The occasional cougar is spotted in and around Pincher Creek,” Heckbert said. “Is that something that people in the area should fear on a daily basis? No. Those cats are there to prey on deer, not people.”

Bucking the trend

Pincher Creek’s deer problem is very real, but it’s hardly unique. 

Heckbert was quick to point out that North Americans have grown to tolerate wildlife in their midst, which he said was reasonable “up to a point.”

“We typically see a range of citizen responses to deer — from people who actively feed deer and actively promote their presence in urban settings, to people who show open disdain for the animals.” 

It’s perfectly unreasonable to expect workable solutions from elected leaders wherever voters stay divided.  

“If you’re on a council and you have clear direction from residents, I guess you know how to move forward,” Heckbert said. “But when it comes to deer and deer issues, citizens are typically deeply split.” 

Often, councils are left with a host of workable but unpopular solutions. 

Deer fencing is a proven winner, but fences aren’t very effective below 2.5 metres (eight feet). Front yard fences are capped at roughly one metre (three feet), with side yard fencing capped at under two metres (six feet), according to the town’s current land use bylaw. 

Town council is considering a bylaw amendment to allow for higher fencing, following recent deer complaints by upset residents. Council is also looking at deer fencing at the Lebel rose garden specifically. 

Alternatively, Heckbert said wildlife officials can meaningfully curb fawning rates by live-trapping does and administering long-term birth-control medication. The pill, so to speak, is safe, but trapping will always present some risk. Success depends on trapping enough does, meaning that the birth-control option has to be a long-term approach. 

As an extreme measure, Alberta municipalities can apply to the ministry for a deer cull. Killing deer is virtually guaranteed to provoke determined opposition, and shooting animals in urban settings is certainly not without risk to people. 

At the same time, Pincher Creek’s deer are highly adapted to the town’s and surrounding areas’ green spaces and rural grasslands. Prey will always attract predators, but town deer instinctively know that predators are thin on the ground. 

Dogs may go after deer that venture into people’s yards, but female deer will violently defend their fawns in the spring. Antlered males aren’t to be trifled with in late fall, either, Heckbert cautioned. 

We can do this if we try

There are solutions for towns that want to meaningfully control urban deer. Between town and MD councils and the residents they serve, Heckbert suggested that Pincher Creek would do well to arrive at clear objectives and agreed-upon strategies. 

Homegrown solutions tend to work better than those imposed by outside authorities, he explained, noting that some British Columbia municipalities have controlled urban deer populations with catch-and-kill programs. Culls can work, but only in the short term and in combination with other measures, Heckbert qualified.

Any such efforts in Pincher Creek would have to be approved by Alberta’s environment ministry, and Heckbert said officials would then look, very closely, to see if softer options had been exhausted and if residents generally backed a proposed cull.

Heckbert underlined that, as far as he was aware, there is no precedent for this in Alberta. If a cull were to happen, a permitted municipality would very likely have to contract that service to an independent contractor. 

Communities in the northeastern United States, much more densely populated than Pincher Creek, have had similar success by liberalizing hunting programs. Provincial regulations strictly prohibit the discharging of any weapon within 183 metres of occupied buildings, but Heckbert noted that bowhunting could work in highly controlled settings. 

Residents, especially hunters, typically demand that deer carcasses be harvested to the fullest possible extent. 

“Deer are very highly valued game species, and to treat them as anything less than that will tend not to go over well,” Heckbert stressed. 

Above all else, Heckbert said he would encourage municipal councils everywhere to “Choose your management options carefully. And most importantly, determine what your citizens actually want.”

By Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 26, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Shootin' the Breeze   Pincher Creek, Alberta

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