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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Residents consider catch, release for deer chomping their gardens

A deer chows down on shrubbery Wednesday evening on Fernan Terrace Road in Fernan Village.
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Fernan Village has become prime real estate for whitetail deer: no wolves, no hunters, easy access to the forest and loads of tasty landscaping.

But the ravenous and increasingly bold herd of deer has worn out its welcome. In an effort to reclaim their lawns and gardens, residents are considering forming a posse to trap and move the animals.

The Idaho Fish and Game Department has given preliminary approval to the plan and offered to loan net traps and a horse trailer to the community, a city of about 200 people on the southeast edge of Coeur d’Alene. But agency employees won’t help wrestle the deer.

“It’s worse than a lacrosse match. In fact, it’s much the same gear when you’re dealing with deer,” said Mark Taylor, a Fish and Game official who has been working on the issue with Fernan Village.

The Fish and Game Department hopes to use Fernan as a model for other communities grappling with burgeoning urban deer herds, Taylor said. Other towns have pleaded for help, but Fernan was the first to pass an ordinance banning feeding of wildlife.

“Fernan stepped up to the plate,” Taylor said of the ordinance, which was passed earlier this year. “People ought to quit feeding them. Until you eliminate the attractiveness of the area, we can move all the deer in the world and some other ones would replace them.”

The trapping could begin this winter, when even greater numbers of deer browse shrubs and trees in the small city on Fernan Lake. Before anything happens, though, the Fish and Game Department expects to host a meeting later this summer or fall to hear from residents, Taylor said. If there’s enough support for trapping, the agency will provide training to volunteers.

Once trapped, the deer would be taken by trailer to forested parcels of public land far from Fernan or other communities, Taylor said. The exact spot has not yet been decided.

Trapping and relocating deer is time consuming and physically challenging for both the humans and the deer. Many biologists believe liberalized hunting seasons or hiring sharpshooters are wiser decisions, but Fernan Councilwoman Mary Ann Tierney worries that lethal control would spark an outcry.

“We can’t do that,” Tierney said. “Everybody would think we’re killing Bambi.”

Tierney uses a motion-detector device attached to a lawn sprinkler to scare away deer, but the device doesn’t work in winter. She said the deer are also increasingly bold. When Tierney tries to shoo them away, “They just stand there and look at me,” she said. “It used to be exciting to see deer. Now when I see them I just think, ‘Oh boy.’ “

Last year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife approved a special archery hunt to help control the urban deer herd in Clarkston. The ongoing drought is sending higher numbers of deer into rural and suburban towns in search of food, but the agency has no plans to trap or move deer, spokeswoman Madonna Luers said. Hunting will remain the tool of choice.

“We’re not shuffling deer around. It’s way too spendy,” she said. “There’s so much risk involved in handling large animals. … Whitetails are incredibly feisty when you trap them.”

Later this month, Montana will consider a proposal by the city of Helena to have sharpshooters kill 334 mule deer inside city limits this winter, said Tom Palmer, spokesman for the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.

The mule deer population in Helena has exploded, and deer are commonly spotted wandering across the grounds of the state Capitol. Game wardens have shot several in recent years because of reports of aggressive behavior.

In developing its new urban deer plan, Helena surveyed residents and found that 78 percent support reducing urban deer numbers, but only about half favored lethal control.

Fernan resident Brian White thinks trapping deer will be dangerous and futile, but he doubts most residents – many of whom recently moved from cities where deer are seldom seen – would support expanded hunting or sharpshooters.

“Either they don’t like hunting or they like deer,” said White, a retired geologist and longtime hunter.

Because of the problem, White gave up gardening four years ago. “We thought we’d try to starve the bastards,” he explained.

But more deer keep coming. On morning walks, he has spotted three dozen or more browsing on shrubs and ornamental plants. The deer seem to have little concern for predators.

“Their main cause of mortality is Interstate 90 and old age,” White said.