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Whitefish looks into creating deer management plan

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | July 8, 2020 1:00 AM

Watching a doe and fawn walking through a downtown park can be a neat experience.

But as Whitefish’s deer population has grown, residents report damage to trees and shrubs a result of deer feeding in yards and safety concerns with some deer becoming aggressive charging at children and pets. Deer are known to amble along city streets and can become the casualty of vehicles especially along the highway.

FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson says dealing with a large deer population in the city can be difficult. Deer in the city can be potentially dangerous including with issues such as car collisions or drawing in predators into the city, but also creating an environment where deer congregate makes them more susceptible to disease, he notes.

“There’s a lot of challenges in dealing with deer especially when hunting isn’t readily available, but there are ways to minimize the impacts. Deer often come to live in the city because there are ample food sources in the city.”

Anderson recently met with Whitefish City Council to discuss the issue of managing deer within city limits.

Concerned citizens previously brought up the issue of managing the city’s deer population asking Council to consider creating a deer management plan.

Council seems in favor of looking into a deer management plan further and exploring the creation of a plan has been placed on the draft list of city goals for fiscal year 2021.

City Manager Dana Smith said city staff plans to begin the process of working with FWP to create a plan.

“Council wants to start working on the deer management plan,” she said. “Chronic wasting disease is out there and could come to town.”

The Montana Legislature in 2003 passed a bill that allows local governments along with FWP to develop programs to manage deer.

Helena has had an urban mule deer management plan in place since 2008. The plan requires the city to survey deer populations and then it can cull up to 250 animals, according to the Helena Independent Record, but hasn’t done so for the last two years because of budgetary reasons.

Anderson said a deer management plan can help Whitefish identify what it considers an acceptable number of deer for the city and then create goals based upon that.

“Prevention is better than reaction especially in keeping the density of deer down,” Anderson said. “I would encourage the city to develop a management plan.”

The city typically creates the management plan that would then be approved by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. Implementation would be up to the city.

Some have estimated within a 2-mile area of City Beach counting between 75 and 100 deer.

Quantifying the number of deer within the city limits is tough, Anderson notes, but there’s probably more living in the city than most people realize.

An overarching reason to manage the city’s deer population seems to be stay ahead of the potential for chronic wasting disease. Any where deer congregate there’s an increased chance for spread of disease, Anderson said.

“Chronic wasting disease could happen anywhere,” Anderson said. “We have the same kind of issues all over.”

FWP has been conducting surveillance for CWD in the state since 1998 and the first detection of the disease was in 2017.

CWD is fatal neurologic disease in deer, elk, moose and caribou caused by an infections protein which infected animal shed.

CWD had only been detected on the northeastern border and southern portion of the state until last year when a deer in town in Libby tested positive for the disease.

Biologists say that movement of carcasses long distance by hunters is likely the reason for the geographic movement of the disease.

CWD is not known to infect humans, pets or livestock, but health officials advise against consuming meat from CWD-positive animals and recommend hunters have their animals tested if it was harvested within an area known to have CWD.

Testing last year in Libby found a 13% positive rate from deer inside the city.

Anderson says that rate is the highest in the state with everywhere else testing at about a 3% rate. The rate outside Libby in the 10-mile CWD management zone was 4% positive.

“We know it’s been on the ground for a long time,” he said. “The town is likely where we have the most issues and it’s spreading out from there.”

Symptoms of the disease, which include drastic weight loss and lack of coordination and lack of fear of people, don’t appear until the deer becomes terminal and it can take two years from infection to death.

A high concentration of deer, such as in town, remains an issue allowing for a greater chance to spread the disease. In Libby, feeding deer, particularly eating apples from trees, had become an issue and the population of deer in town increased.

“There’s a lot of challenges there that are similar to Whitefish,” Anderson said.

Eventually the disease could cause a decline in the deer population, Anderson notes, so the goal is to prevent the spread.

“The goal is to limit the spread and reduce the deer density,” Anderson said. “We’re not going to eradicate the disease.”