By BOB SHAW, St. Paul Pioneer Press
St. Paul, Minn. (AP) - Where's the best deer-hunting area in Minnesota?
Chances are, you're living in it.
The state's greatest concentrations of deer are in the Twin Cities metro area and a part of southeastern Minnesota. And a growing number of cities are fighting back, adding bowhunting seasons and hiring slay-for-pay deer killers.
"The venison is wonderful," said Bob Bay, who shot a deer in Newport in December, thanks to the city's new bowhunting season.
Metro deer are so plentiful that he was able to bag one near his home -- after not even seeing a deer during a recent weeklong hunting trip to northern Minnesota.
But trouble comes with the trophies. Many suburbanites can't stand the thought of would-be Robin Hoods creeping through their back yards. Killing deer with arrows, they say, is immoral.
"It's not hunting at all. It's like shooting cows in a pasture," said Mike Engelmann of Andover, which expanded the territory for bowhunting into his neighborhood last fall.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes bowhunting because it often only injures deer.
"We view it as inhumane," said Laura Simon, the group's field director of urban wildlife programs.
But bowhunting has a key advantage for cities trying to reduce deer populations: It's free. In a recession, officials are willing to live with moral ambiguity to save money. Other options, such as deer birth control, are complicated and expensive.
The only real alternative is to do nothing, Advertisement Quantcast according to Marrett Grund, farmland deer project coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources.
"This is better than nothing," he said.
SPOILED BY CIVILIZATION
For 100 years, the deer population has grown along with the United States population. About 500,000 white-tailed deer lived in the U.S. in the early 1900s -- a number that has exploded into 25 million today.
Like people, deer have migrated to cities. "Cities have so many advantages for them," said Bryan Lueth, urban wildlife manager for the DNR.
Cities have no predators, such as wolves or rifle-shooting hunters. Food is plentiful -- in homeowners' gardens. And the lure of the city is irresistible in winter.
Deer often snuggle up to the warm foundations of houses. Exhausted by trudging through deep snow, they love plowed streets and walkways. Many eat well, thanks to feedings by soft-hearted homeowners.
It's as if an entire species has been spoiled by the comforts of civilization. And that's why bowhunters are learning not to bother with wilderness anymore.
Only 20 percent of bowhunters in northern Minnesota bag a deer, compared with 50 percent to 80 percent in Ramsey County, according to John Moriarty, the county's natural-resources manager.
The metro area has become the happy hunting ground for the Metro Bowhunters Resource Base, which provides free deer-culling services.
The group conducted about 18 hunts last year on public and private land, according to board member Scott Stroyny, and had more requests than it could handle.
As Stroyny prepared for a hunt in Shoreview in December, he said the archers have hunted in Maplewood, St. Paul and Burnsville. The group has been shooting deer in Oakdale for five years, and the city recently expanded the hunting area.
"We provide a service," he said. "And it's a great opportunity for hunters."
Experts say deer are beautiful when spread thinly, in harmony with nature and natural predators. But there is nothing natural about a deer in a city.
When deer move into cities, they start to breed -- and Mother Nature braces for the destruction.
In many urban forests, a kind of high-water mark is visible -- the highest point where deer can reach to eat. Below that "browse line," deer eat almost anything green -- flowers, leaves on trees, seedlings.
"The damage is magnified through the food chain," said the DNR's Lueth. Deer eat shrubs -- so populations of shrub-loving birds suffer. Deer target certain trees -- white pines are like candy for deer.
The deer and the damage are often concentrated. For example, deer are crammed into two different square miles in the 155 square miles of Ramsey County, Moriarty said. Those areas are south of Interstate 94 and east of U.S. 61 near Battle Creek Regional Park, and in a zone in Shoreview and North Oaks.
There, the deer population can spike to as many as 50 per square mile. "It should be 20 or fewer," said Moriarty. The entire county has 1,200 deer -- and can naturally support about 500, he said.
Gardeners howl when deer treat their manicured flowerbeds like salad bars. Deer cause traffic accidents -- more, in fact, than drunken drivers do.
The DNR and the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety report that about 20,000 accidents in Minnesota each year are related to deer, compared with about 4,000 related to alcohol -- although alcohol-related crashes are far more deadly.
And deer are like commuter buses for deer ticks, which regularly hop off to spread Lyme disease.
But a powerful argument against bowhunting recently limped though Engelmann's back yard in Andover.
It was a deer, shot through the head with an arrow. The arrow stuck out below an eye on one side, and poked out of the jaw on the other.
"It was terrible," Engelmann said. "I have the feeling that some of the guys want to shoot their trophies off of their own picnic tables. It is just not right."
Hideously injured deer sightings haven't changed rules in Andover, but they have in Gem Lake.
That small town tightened its bowhunting rules last summer, after parents complained that wounded deer -- with arrows protruding -- frightened children at school bus stops.
"It was kind of horrible," said Mayor Bob Uzpen.
The Humane Society says about half the deer hit with arrows don't die quickly, but rather escape -- and often die slow, miserable deaths.
"It is the most inefficient way of hunting," said the Humane Society's Simon. "It takes more hunters more hours to take out fewer deer."
Simon said bowhunting is a political cop-out.
"From a politician's point of view, it is doing something and doesn't cost anything," she said.
She said there are alternatives.
Deer could be trapped and injected with contraceptives, she said. This method has slashed deer populations in such places as Fire Island, N.Y.
She suggested that gardens be surrounded with seven-foot fences or treated with deer repellent.
Most critically, she said, hunting doesn't reduce deer populations in the long term. When hunted, deer compensate by having offspring at a younger age and producing more twins and triplets. The population, she said, bounces back.
'CULL WITH EFFICIENCY'
But wildlife experts say shooting works just fine, thank you.
The DNR's Grund said that when used "aggressively," bowhunting can indeed reduce deer populations.
And guns work even better. The shooting is done not by hunters, but by paid deer exterminators -- like Tony DeNicola.
"The issue is simple. If you want less deer, you are going to have to kill them," said DeNicola, president of White Buffalo Inc. The nonprofit group, which operates in 17 states, kills deer with firearms and provides deer contraceptives and sterilizations.
DeNicola has worked in many parts of Minnesota, including Burnsville, Edina and Ramsey County.
When his crew comes to town, they don't worry much about sportsmanship -- they use bait and lights to attract deer and can kill dozens of them in a few days.
"We cull with efficiency, not to create fair chase," he said.
He said it's a "myth" that deer populations bounce back after hunting. Kill enough of them, he said, and the long-term effects will be dramatic.
He doesn't object to bowhunting. But he calls it ineffective because arrows are less lethal than bullets, and bowhunters must get much closer to an animal before shooting.
"It's a primitive tool," he said.
His shooters wait until a group of deer approaches, attracted to the bait.
They shoot the dominant doe in the brain, killing her instantly. The others are confused and stand still -- where they can quickly be killed.
Bowhunting doesn't work well, he said, because if the dominant female is only injured, she will run, and the herd takes flight. They learn quickly and avoid the area. The same thing happens with a dart gun, he said.
Bowhunting is merely recreational, he said.
"I have nothing against it," DeNicola said. "Just don't think you are managing deer because you have killed 50 or 100 deer."
THE CASE FOR BULLETS
The extermination businesses are cost-effective, said Ramsey County's Moriarty.
The county paid $250 per deer -- or $50,000 to remove 200 deer -- when the county employed a deer-culling company five years ago.
Many communities have used such methods -- including Burnsville and Eden Prairie. North Oaks hires a contractor to live-trap deer and then shoot them. Bloomington has allowed police officers to hunt them.
Culling experts scoff at the Humane Society's "alternatives."
Moving deer is costly and spreads disease. Opening gun-hunting to the public would be too dangerous.
Birth control is impractical, they say. Contraceptives must be injected into deer by hand, and then the same deer must be given booster shots every one or two years afterward.
It often takes five years for such a program to have an effect on populations -- and they sometimes have little effect at all. The drugs make the deer unsafe for human consumption.
The cost of the shots, said DeNicola, is more than $700 per deer.
The pleas about the inhumanity of hunting fall on deaf ears at the DNR. Every deer eventually dies, they say -- usually in ways more dreadful than getting shot.
In the wild, deer are eaten by wolves. In cities, Lueth said, "the overpopulation problem corrects itself through disease or starvation. Or they get hit by a car and die slowly and painfully."
"Would you rather see a deer die of disease or starvation, or by a bullet?"
Newport's experience shows how deer can divide a community.
The town had become a kind of deer sanctuary between Woodbury and Cottage Grove, which allow bowhunting.
When complaints about deer mounted, the city set up its first bowhunting season last fall. The season ended Dec. 31, after hunters had killed about 12 deer.
Today, the new "No hunting" and "No trespassing" signs remain around the city. Battling sets of petitions -- anti-hunting and pro-hunting -- have been circulating.
Like most cities, Newport imposed strict controls on the hunters. They must have a landowner's permission. They are allowed only on parcels of five or more acres. They must pass a proficiency test.
Bob Cropsey, owner of Backwoods Archery and Shooting Sports in Newport, was surprised by the high turnout for the test -- about 35 hunters took it.
He said culling the Newport herd is especially humane in a harsh winter.
"They will die, especially the young deer," said Cropsey. "That is a fact of life."
It's also a fact that many residents find killing deer abhorrent.
Earl Clausen has lived among the deer of Newport for 12 years. He admitted that the deer eat his flowers.
"I would prefer they not do that, but deer have to survive," he said.
"We are invading their territory, not the other way around."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)