HELENA, Montana – Home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, eat shrubs, cause traffic jams and give birth on your front lawn.
Whether it is deer in Montana, black bears in New Jersey, mountain lions in California or bison in Wyoming, wildlife is becoming accustomed to city life, sometimes with tragic results. In Helena, Montana, up to 500 mule deer live within the city limits, and their number is growing. “We have 25-50 fawns born each year,” said Mike Korn, the area supervisor for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Development and urban sprawl are partly to blame. “We’ve actually moved into their territory, rather than vice versa,” said Ron Aasheim, administrator of conservation education for the department. Drought conditions and wildfires in the last five years are other factors. “In some areas, towns and cities are the only green spots,” Korn said. Environmental laws have sometimes been too effective. New Jersey’s black bears were hunted nearly to extinction before a 33-year hunting ban led to a population explosion. In Montana, mule deer numbers are growing in its cities as the urban environment provides ideal habitat.
“Food, shelter, lack of predators – the deer have everything they need,” Aasheim said. Last month, northern California officials were shocked to find a sea lion in a farmer’s field about 65 miles inland. The 315-pound creature had traveled about 1 mile from the nearest body of water, a series of canals crisscrossing the farmland. In Helena, it is not unusual to see groups of two or three deer bounding across the municipal golf course, crossing streets, or visiting neighborhood gardens. No one has been injured, but Aasheim believes it is only a matter of time. “Bucks in rut can be pretty truculent,” he said of the deer mating season. He also said there is a real possibility mountain lions will follow their favorite prey into town, with unpredictable results.
In January, a mountain lion, or cougar, killed a man biking in Orange County south of Los Angeles and badly wounded a woman. Police later killed a cougar nearby and found pieces of the man in its stomach. A 1990 California voter initiative banned the hunting of mountain lions, which may explain their increasing boldness. “When a species is hunted – bears, mountain lions, deer – they’re afraid of people,” Korn said. In towns that prohibit hunting, they gradually lose that fear. Some urban areas have been forced to permit hunting again. Last December, New Jersey allowed people to shoot black bears and Fort Benton, Montana, recently approved a hunt in a designated part of town. Colorado residents have killed more than 1,000 bears, most who had wandered into residential areas for food, in the past four years. “Bears will come right into communities when they have the opportunity,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury. “When we believe that the bear actually is a potential risk to people, or when the bear has become so habituated to food that people leave out that they are going to continue to come back and even enter people’s homes, in those circumstances we do kill bears.” Urban deer can be a headache for homeowners who spend lots of money and time planting, watering and fertilizing trees and shrubs, only to see them become dinner for a hungry doe. About 50 miles from New York City, as many as 400 deer wander on Fire Island, a popular summertime beach community. “To some people, the word deer inevitably brings up images from Walt Disney’s classic film ‘Bambi,”‘ the National Park Service Web site said about Fire Island’s deer. “In the last 20 years or so, many people have also come to think of deer as pests, ‘rats with hooves.’ Crowded out by human development, with no remaining natural wild predators, deer eat suburbanites’ gardens and cause car accidents.” Tom Eastman, a Montana homeowner, said: “I call them forest rats. Ten years ago, I used to think they were cute. That was when you couldn’t get within 50 feet of them. Now, they don’t scare, even when you yell at them. They’re not like Bambi, not in the least.” Montana wildlife officials met in Helena last month to discuss the problem. Korn said organizing a hunt is an obvious but controversial option. “There’s supposed to be new technology for deer birth control,” he said. “But, as with humans, you have to keep it up regularly.” “Whatever solution is tried, it’s sure to make someone unhappy,” said Aasheim of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “But deer represent something special. They should be wild and free.”