Urban deer hunts aim to control population, but may not

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Trees
A cedar tree in a Duluth backyard is protected by tall fencing to prevent deer from browsing its needles. Duluth implemented a city deer hunt nine years ago to control the city's booming deer population, and reduce damage to people's yards and car collisions.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Hundreds of hunters in Duluth, Grand Rapids and the Twin Cities won't have to drive far to find a deer when the season opens Saturday for archers. They'll set up their blinds right in the city, even in people's backyards.

City hunts are spreading across the state and country as a way to control the animal's booming population.

When the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance first started hunting in Duluth nine years ago, they anticipated a "Not in My Backyard" response. More often they hear, 'why not in my backyard,'" said group president Phillip Lockett.

"It's kind of surprising, you get these little old ladies that you don't think would be furious with the deer, but they're almost bloodthirsty," said Lockett. "They're just like, 'we want them all gone!'"

Sneves
The Aerial Lift Bridge in the Duluth harbor peeks over Pete and Sally Sneve, standing in their Duluth backyard on Sept. 11, 2013. Hunters have killed 14 deer in the Sneve's backyard in the past five years, after deer killed several old cedar trees.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Sally Sneve might not be bloodthirsty. But the 81-year-old was certainly fed up with deer when she contacted Lockett's group five years ago. She recalls a day when 16 deer milled about "like cows chewing their cuds."

While she enjoys seeing the deer, especially the spring fawns, she dreads them getting older. "I just know they're going to be eating our bushes this fall," said, adding, "but they are darling little things."

Those darling creatures have already killed several 30-year-old cedar trees. They're also a public safety issue, causing dozens of crashes a year.

But the Sneves' house is perched right above downtown. It's less than two blocks from two major roads, and surrounded by other homes. So Brian Borkholder, who oversees the hunt in this area for the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, handpicks the archers to hunt here. They all have to pass a proficiency test. And they usually shoot from tree stands so their arrows stick into the ground.

"It's kind of surprising, you get these little old ladies that you don't think would be furious with the deer, but they're almost bloodthirsty,"

"I tell them, they're not allowed to take any shots beyond 20 yards, because, obviously as tight as we are, we're right above the police station and city hall, we need these shots to be 'gimmies,'" he said. "We can't afford to have a wounded animal running around."

Duluth hunters kill about 600 deer annually. Across the state and country, urban bow hunts continue to proliferate as communities search for affordable ways to control their booming deer populations.

Grand Rapids and Cook in northeast Minnesota, and Newport and Lino Lakes in the metro area are holding hunts for the first time this year.

The bow hunt isn't universally loved and it doesn't solve the problem of too many deer, says Leslie Simon, a wildlife ecologist for the Humane Society of the United States.

She argues that while hunts may initially put a dent in the deer population, the numbers bounce back. Bow hunting, she added, is less humane than other methods of controlling the deer population, because it often only wounds the animals.

Instead, the Humane Society recommends planting flowers and shrubs that don't attract deer, using repellants that keep them away, or fencing to protect gardens.

"If you're trying to manage deer by managing their numbers, it's really a losing battle," she said. "The deer are going to come in from the surrounding area and continue to be tempted to your backyard."

There's not much data to show how effective the hunts have been. In Ramsey County, aerial surveys do show a sharp drop in deer numbers in many parks since hunting began in 2000.

Tom Rusch, the DNR Area Wildlife Manager in Tower, says the problem doesn't get solved in one year.

"But we've seen it be effective," he said. "I expect to hear from people, I'm not seeing the deer I used to see, that's the kind of reaction you get."

And that's what Brian Borkholder has seen firsthand in Duluth.

Brian Borkholder
Brian Borkholder, Secretary/Treasurer of the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, stands in the Duluth backyard of Pete and Sally Sneve on Sept. 11. 2013. Borkholder has shot six deer in the Sneves' backyard in the past five years as part of Duluth's city deer hunt.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

He suspects that's partly because hunters are required to shoot a doe before they take a buck and that has to mean fewer babies. "We can't have not made a difference."

Borkholder has shot six deer in Pete and Sally Sneves' backyard, from a camouflaged blind tied to a big air conditioner right underneath their deck.

Urban hunters contend with blaring sirens, barking dogs, even kids jumping on trampolines.

"It is not the solitary, tranquil experience you get out in the woods. And we have a lot of people who have participated, and have walked away because it wasn't what they wanted," Borkholder said.

But if they want to harvest a deer, this is the hunt for them. Statewide, a bow hunter only kills a deer every seven and a half years. In Duluth, there are so many deer, the average hunter kills two deer, every year.

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