Deer overpopulation has Colorado Springs officials debating merits of urban hunting

Colorado Springs' urban deer population is said to be dangerously high, and the City Council is considering options to reduce it. Reader submitted photo by Todd A. Dierdorff.

Deer lay siege to Andy Pico's wife's garden so often - eating her flowers - that the city councilman has named them.

"I call them The Venisons," Pico said with a laugh.

But the issue is no laughing matter, he said. Colorado Springs' urban deer population is said to be dangerously high, and the council is considering options to reduce it.

About 20 deer live in every square mile of southwest Colorado Springs, said Bill Vogrin, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"Typically in the rural, forested areas of the state, we see two to three deer per square mile," Vogrin said. "That's the norm and what we consider healthy."

Colorado Springs' dense deer population results in a high level of vehicle-vs.-deer crashes, authorities say.

Last year, 169 such accidents occurred along local stretches of Interstate 25, U.S. 24 and Colorado 115, the Colorado Department of Transportation reported.

"They don't grow up to be king of the forest," Pico said. "You don't get old deer here because they die on the side of the road."

Next month, Pico and Councilmen Merv Bennett and Don Knight will speak with Frank McGee, area wildlife manager for state Parks and Wildlife, to learn more about the problem and potential solutions.

All things considered, McGee said, regulated urban hunting might be one of the most viable options.

"There are things that work, and there are things that cost," McGee said. "Hunting is effective, and it doesn't cost."

If an urban hunt were allowed in Colorado Springs, it would involve bow and arrows, not firearms, McGee said. And the effort would be regulated at the council's discretion.

Even so, the idea has seen significant pushback from residents and some council members.

Opposition is to be expected, depending on the community, said Joe Caudell, a deer research biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Caudell's agency created the Urban Deer Technical Guide, a resource McGee said he's using as a partial guide to addressing the local deer population.

Urban hunting programs have been instituted sparingly in Indiana and other states, and they've had varying degrees of success, Caudell said. He said he hasn't heard of any accidents or injuries in Indiana communities such as Ogden Dunes or Hidden Valley, which have employed hunting programs.

"It can help reduce the deer populations," Caudell said. "But a lot of times, it's not the only solution used."

Two local hunters - a retired police officer and a reserve officer - hunted in approved areas within Ogden Dunes to great success, said Jim Reeder, chief of police. But so many residents in the northwest Indiana town opposed the program it split the community, he said.

"I think the town made the right decision, it took care of our deer problem, but politically it was a mess here for about three years," Reeder said. "Personally, I wouldn't want to go through it again."

Reeder said he knows both men selected for the hunting program and he personally supervised each outing and kept track of every round they fired.

Neither hunter was paid by the town and the approximately 110 deer they killed were donated to local food pantries, Reeder said. No accidents or injuries were reported.

For west side Colorado Springs resident Leigh Saulsbury, the notion of urban hunting reminds her of an injured deer that stumbled through her neighborhood a few years ago. She said the deer was shot with an arrow near Jenkins Park, and the experience "absolutely terrified" her.

She said urban hunting within city limits would make her uncomfortable.

Although the Air Force Academy boasts a successful deer hunting program, which began in 1988 and has decreased crash rates, Saulsbury said that's a different environment.

"The academy is hundreds of acres," she said. "Not on my street. There are dogs here. There are cats here. There are rabbits here."

Caudell said he also encourages use of fences to try to direct deer away from high traffic or residential areas. This and other trapping techniques can be used with urban hunting programs to better address booming populations, he said.

But each community must decide what works best, Caudell said.

McGee said fencing and repellents have had mixed results locally. They can protect property and curb accidents, but neither addresses the overpopulation problem, he said.

Other options include chemically sterilizing the deer, trapping and surgically spaying or neutering, trapping and euthanizing or trapping and relocating, McGee said. The options cost $500 to $3,000 per deer and are often ineffective, he said.

Moving the deer is especially difficult because many are infected with chronic wasting disease, bluetongue disease or the plague, McGee said. Their survival rate in a new environment is about 50 percent.

So the most effective options boil down to hunting variations, he said. The city can hire sharpshooters or allow regulated hunting by local residents.

Hiring hunters can cost up to $350 per deer, while regulated urban hunting is effectively free, McGee said. With both options, the venison generally is donated to feed the less fortunate.

City Council President Richard Skorman, who lives near Cheyenne Cañon, said he doesn't want an urban hunting program in town. He said he prefers to trap and euthanize the deer and donate the meat.

Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler has said she might support urban bow hunting, but she voiced concern about adverse effects.

Meggen Burghardt said she heads to Stratton Open Space a few times a week and wouldn't want urban hunting in the area because so many people and other animals are there.

"Kids, dogs, bicyclists. People wearing their headphones. I don't think it's very safe," Burghardt said. "Accidents happen."

But McGee said that while both hunting options carry the perception of danger, they can be safely implemented.

In early mornings, the two parks in Elizabeth, east of Castle Rock, belong to the 10 or so hunters chosen for the program there.

That's been the case for the past two years, said Mike Barney, executive director of the town's Parks and Recreation District.

No accidents or injuries have occurred, Barney said, and more than two dozen deer were killed in town parks this year.

"It's getting to the point where they're able to impact growth," he said. "I don't know that they're thinning the deer herd any, but they're keeping up with the local reproductive rate."

With a limited budget and staff, Barney said, the town didn't consider a lot of other options to cull deer herds, and public opposition was rare.

The hunters "probably haven't been seen.... They come at times early in the morning or in the evenings when the parks don't typically have a high level of use," he said. "They're pretty discreet about their efforts. They're certainly cleaning up when they do make a kill, properly disposing of the deer and providing meat to local families."

Hunters have to pass an accuracy test and schedule their park appearance in advance, among other things, Barney said. Not all who apply are accepted.

"It's been great for us," he said. "They're out of sight, out of mind. And we get reports from them, and we do believe it's helping to try and stabilize the deer population here and reduce deer/car collisions."

McGee said the local council could dictate that hunts occur only on certain size plots and that the hunters take extra safety classes, pass proficiency tests and fire only from elevated tree stands.

"It really depends on the city and their comfort level," he said.

Pico said he's still considering all the options, but it appears a controlled hunting program might be the most effective. He also sees a "fair amount of space" in town suitable for bow hunting. City parks would be off-limits, he said.

Vogrin said other areas also wouldn't work well.

"Some neighborhoods are just too densely built with homes and businesses, and hunting would be inappropriate," he said. "Some sort of trapping would be necessary in those areas if city leaders and the community decide they want to address the problems in those neighborhoods."

Council members will continue discussing urban hunting and other options in January, but no immediate recommendation is expected.

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