Never mind that he’s 70. Jim Kujala is wired like a predator to head out at 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. or whenever his prey is at hand. Rivaling Noah in the number of wild critters he’s handled, the Spokane Valley man’s talent has been a blessing for two Inland Northwest towns plagued by destructive infestations of dangerously tame deer. In his retirement, Kujala has been live-trapping and relocating deer without using costly tranquilizers.
His deft touch has been vital for deer control in communities with factions that love and hate the deer marauding their neighborhoods.
“No community would have 100 percent support,” said Jim Elder, mayor of Fernan Village, the small town on the eastern edge of Coeur d’Alene. “But there was overwhelming agreement to try something, and trapping is the most acceptable because the deer aren’t killed.”
Kujala has captured and relocated virtually all the nuisance deer from Fernan – 64 whitetails over two fall-winter seasons as of Friday.
This season, he also removed 57 deer from Republic, leaving 35-40 deer still hanging around town while the City Council determines its next step.
To curtail another influx of deer, both towns have put more emphasis on ordinances prohibiting residents from feeding big game.
“Most of our options were lethal,” Elder said. In 2008, Fernan became the first Idaho municipality the Fish and Game Department authorized to trap and relocate nuisance deer.
Both towns were trying to avoid the situation in Montana’s capital city, Helena, which let its urban mule deer herd mushroom to more than 500 before taking action.
Montana wildlife biologists warned that if the deer weren’t culled, the city of 30,000 could be infested by more than 1,000 deer in 2010, accelerating complaints about deer-vehicle collisions, aggressive deer threatening people and pets, and deer damage to yards and gardens.
Last year, Helena’s police trapped 200 deer and dispatched them immediately with slaughterhouse bolt guns applied to their heads. The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department has authorized them to kill another 200 this season. The meat is butchered for the Helena Food Share.
“Even with live-trapping, Idaho Fish and Game biologists told us the mortality rate could be 5 to 10 percent,” Elder recalled.
But Kujala has lost only two deer: a sickly one-eyed doe at Republic and a fawn at Fernan, which he immediately delivered to a charity house to salvage the meat.
Kujala had a crew of volunteers in Republic, including Russ Foster, a member of a citizen committee to address the Ferry County town’s nuisance deer problem.
“He takes his work very seriously,” Foster said. “He has it down to fine science.
“I learned one thing for sure: Wrestling deer isn’t for old fat people. I also learned that a deer can kick up past its head with its rear leg.”
“Jim is remarkable in the way he handles deer,” Elder said. “You have to stay up all night and watch him to get a flavor of it.”
Kujala sets up cages resembling portable dog kennels in the yards of cooperating homeowners. He baits the traps, usually with apples, and asks the homeowners to check them around 10 p.m. before they go to bed.
If he gets a call, he goes out immediately. If not, he checks the traps about 3 a.m. With luck, the cage holds a deer and not a raccoon.
“My lucky helpers are used to getting a call in the middle of the night,” he joked.
At 4:30 on a recent morning, Kujala and Dave Ross, his main assistant, worked with the speed and precision of a SWAT team as they approached a whitetail fawn they’d captured in Fernan.
Kujala drove his pickup to within 100 feet, leaving the headlights on to blind the fawn while he and Ross ran in and collapsed the trap as the deer began to panic.
Within seconds, the whitetail was on the ground on its side, pressed between the two collapsed sides of the wire-mesh cage.
Deer will get away if there’s a glitch in the procedure. This time, Kujala and Ross teamed to wrestle the animal into the safety of submission. They hobbled its flailing legs and pulled a blindfold over its eyes.
“You can’t have any distractions,” Kujala said. “Take too much time and the deer will hurt itself. Let go of a leg and your partner gets kicked in the face, or someplace worse.”
Kujala knows this from his deer-catching school of hard knocks.
The hobbled, blindfolded deer was absolutely calm as it was ear-tagged, hauled in a sled to the back of the pickup and transported more than 50 miles to a Coeur d’Alene River release site specified by Idaho Fish and Game.
The men set the motionless deer on he ground, pinned it down with their knees, removed the hobbles and blindfold, stretched its front legs forward and its back legs to the rear before letting go simultaneously and turning quickly away.
The fawn launched vertically as though vaulted by a spring and swiftly kicked a rear hoof horizontally, missing Kujala’s head by inches, before sprinting away in the darkness.
“You never know what they’re going to do,” Kujala said, shaking his head at the close call. “I don’t know it all. I’m still learning.”
By the time he came on to help Fernan and Republic, he had the equivalent of a critter handling Ph.D., considering his boyhood on a Montana ranch, his lifelong affection for hunting and countless hours volunteering for fish and wildlife research projects.
“Jim’s my hero,” said Woody Myers, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department researcher who’s tapped Kujala for his mule deer studies as well as tracking radio-collared elk.
He also volunteers with the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council team that recovers road-killed deer and delivers the meat to the Union Gospel Mission.
“He’s a tireless helper who always seems to be available to help us with everything from capturing wild turkeys to moose,” said Capt. Mike Whorton, WDFW enforcement officer.
While he has volunteered for the state agency, he charged the communities $250 a deer – a fee he said he’d have to increase if he does any more projects.
“They charge more than $650 deer back East, but I was more interested in helping these towns,” he said.
Elder said Fernan’s money appears to have been well spent.
“We weren’t sure trapping was going to work, but it’s had a remarkable impact,” he said.
“Last year we had 50-plus deer walking through our community. Now there’s maybe a couple.
“Our town is a lot safer without the deer, and without the mountain lions and wolves that might follow them into our neighborhoods.
“None of us thinks we’ll never have another deer in Fernan, but now we think we can maintain it, and we caught the problem before it was as expensive to deal with as in Helena and Republic.”
Meanwhile, Kujala, who stays fit by running, skiing, hunting and sitting still as little as possible, is in his element in the early-morning darkness.
“Saw five elk by release site day before yesterday,” he said in a Wednesday e-mail report of this deer trapping activity. “Always interesting. Even a great-horned owl with a snowshoe rabbit on the road in. The owl maintained a grip on the rabbit as I drove around it but couldn’t stand the pressure of a badly painted truck so near so it flew away with the prize.
“I feel so bad for all the people sleeping in and missing what there is to see.”