Deer crossing 

Humans drive wildlife into urban Boise living

In one night last summer, 200 heads of lettuce disappeared from Peaceful Belly Farm, which sits on four acres off of Hill Road. Cherry tomatoes barely stood a chance to the produce thieves. In three years the farm has lost about $9,000 to these uninvited neighbors who see only a free salad bar.

The culprits are not beetles or kleptomaniacal vegetarians, but growing herds of urban deer, squeezed out of their natural habitat.

"The deer just keep eating more and more," said farmer Clay Erskine. "In the last three years, it's gotten really bad."

Development in game habitat, depleted food sources and robust breeding have caused a swell of deer in communities across the nation.

"People are building their front yards in deer back yards, and it's a problem all over the West," said John Thompson, spokesperson for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Some communities have come just shy of declaring open season on nuisance animals.

An estimated 700 deer called the city limits of Helena, Mont., home in early 2008. The deer often flanked the lawns of the state capitol and were reported to have chased newspaper carriers, harassed dogs and eaten expensive landscaping. The unwelcome deer population forced the city council to open a hunt on the animals. The city adopted a pilot program last year aimed at harvesting 50 deer through trapping. The plan allows police officers to shoot the deer with a bolt gun after they're trapped, instantly killing them.

Communities coast to coast report an overabundance of some wildlife species. Minneapolis residents report unwelcome run-ins with deer, and New Yorkers have called on local officials to consider thinning the state's deer population using incentives such as free butchering for venison donated to the needy. An effort to control pest deer with fencing has found some success in Union County, N.J. Other communities hire contractors to solve their wild pest problems. If you have a rogue coyote on your property and live in the Atlanta, Ga., region, you could call Urban Wildlife Control. With the motto, "Don't let urban wildlife ruin your life," they'll do the hunting for you.

The City of Boise takes a gentler approach to dealing with furry and feathered critters.

Deer haven't created enough of a nuisance to prompt the city to consider lethal control methods. But Boise's Parks and Recreation Department continues to test a variety of methods aimed at keeping beaver and geese in check, according to city community relations coordinator, Amy Stahl.

"We're under fairly strict restrictions on what we can do," said Tom Governale, superintendent of Boise Parks.

Laws limit city officials to fencing off areas to keep beaver from felling trees and trapping and relocating. Governale said they're considering employing dogs from the Humane Society to scare away geese, which consume lawns and dot parks with feces.

Idaho's Department of Fish and Game doesn't document every wildlife encounter, but tracks nuisance and aggressive animals and sightings of some species.

"Overall, we're seeing an increase [in urban wildlife encounters] because we're expanding into their habitat, so we're having more conflicts with them," said Jennifer Struthers, research wildlife biologist with Fish and Game. "We're also expanding into their classic winter rangeland and reducing food availability to them. And so they're coming in as well to get ornamental vegetation or farm crops."

Wildlife biologists tasked with finding solutions to urban wildlife problems recognize that they are dealing with a population squeezed from its native habitat by human lust for up-close views of sweeping Foothills landscapes and overzealous recreation practices that help deplete their indigenous food sources.

And Boise's urban deer are brazen, too. One morning the Erskines awoke to find that a buck had torn a hole in a greenhouse so he could eat the first pickings of young vegetables. "They're not stupid." Erskine said.

Peaceful Belly Farm plays host to some deer that are just passing through, but Erskine started to recognize some of the unwelcome grazers as return freeloaders.

"These are not new deer. This is their territory," Erskine said.

A proliferation of noxious weeds across the state can also displace wildlife, said Matt Voile, noxious weeds program manager with the Idaho Department of Agriculture. But development plays a huge role as well.

"With deer, there could be a real increase in their numbers. But I think, over time, we're seeing more incidences because of the number of people developing in their habitat," Struthers said.

Regulations don't lay out concrete rules to prevent human encroachment from displacing wildlife. Ada County requires developers to create their own wildlife plans, which are reviewed by Fish and Game officials.

"We don't have any regulations that might make a property owner put up a fence or plant vegetation to off-set wildlife impacts," said Rich Wright, Ada Country spokesperson.

Fish and Game can make recommendations to developers' wildlife plans but holds no power over whether those plans are implemented. But Rick Ward, Fish and Game environmental staff biologist, said that with any plan, it's difficult to predict the impacts a development may have on any species.

"The planned communities haven't been around long enough—at least around here—for people to completely understand what they're going to be like when they're finished," Ward said.

In an effort to keep the returning deer from becoming repeat offenders, the Erskines looked into depredation hunts. If Peaceful Belly were a rural farm, it could add venison to the seasonal menu. But because it sits within a city, a kill was off limits. That left the Erskines looking for less lethal options: invisible fences, temporary fences, loud noises.

A range of hazing equipment became a part of the daily farming tools. The Erskines even took a tip from Fish and Game and tried to keep the deer at bay by using the scent of venison. Like Erskine said, the deer are not stupid and typically avoid areas that smell of dead kin. So Fish and Game delivered a fresh deer carcass to Peaceful Belly Farm last spring. The Erskines hooked up the road kill to their ATV and dragged the meat across the landscape, leaving the scent of deer death on all corners of Peaceful Belly Farm. The odor settled in. And the deer returned.

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