Najifa Farhat

(Missoula Current) Sarah Donovan, 59, has given up on farming.

"They look cute, don't they? Only until you find them in your backyard, destroying everything you put effort into growing," Donovan said, referring to the deer in her backyard that has become a comfortable refuge for a herd of seven deer in the winter.

Donovan’s dream of having a home with a garden is now lost, as she cannot keep up with the deer’s constant destruction of her vegetation. Now, the yard only has a small garlic patch, a strongly scented plant that deer despise.

"I had a beautiful yard with at least 18 different types of vegetation throughout. My grandchildren would play under that apple tree, which now barely has a leaf on it. I don't have my heart in gardening anymore," she said.

Deer are considered an integral part of Missoula. As the city has grown in size and number, so has its deer population. While the animal roams freely and many enjoy seeing them around, their excessive numbers have become a nuisance.

Some Missoula residents said that deer have stripped many of the city’s gardens bare. It's a problem that's been growing for years, and they feel at a loss on how to address it.

Impacts of Growing Deer Population

Backyard deer invasions and other human-deer conflicts, such as car crashes or deer attacks, are not novel issues. They're often seen as the cost of keeping a town hospitable to wildlife.

But some residents around the city, including experts, believe the deer population has now reached a threshold that requires organized action. Otherwise, it may be on the verge of welcoming other problems like Chronic Wasting Disease, which can transfer to other wildlife.

Ryan Klimstra, a biologist with the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for Missoula County, believes the city's deer population is very high and problematic. He said there are too many deer in the city limits due to the lack of predators and the abundance of food sources.

"Especially in summer when it's dry and there is not a lot of moisture up on the hillside, the city is much greener; it acts like a water source too," Klimstra said.

According to the US Wildlife Society, 100-125 whitetail deer per square mile is an appropriate number. But Klimstra is confident that the deer per square mile in Missoula is higher, especially during dry periods where food and water are not as available outside of the city limits.

To solve the issue, the Neighborhood Council, a voluntary organization of the city's various wards, put forward a proposal in October 2019 to examine neighborhood problems regarding deer populations around Missoula.

Part of the project was to initiate a deer census study, which had never been conducted before. The purpose of the study was to provide scientific evidence regarding the size and density of the deer population, with the aim of establishing an urban deer management plan.

In addition, the study aimed to examine similar situations in other US cities and explore effective practices to address the issue. The collaborative project involved the city of Missoula, county government, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and wildlife experts from the school of Forestry at the University of Montana.

The proposal was supported by all neighborhood councils with a commitment of $6,000 from the city for the study. But everything came to a halt due to COVID and the project fizzled out.

A buck takes a rest in a Missoula yard.
A buck takes a rest in a Missoula yard.

Another Missoula resident, who asked not to be named, advocated for the study with support from members of other neighborhoods. At the time, city leadership pledged to fund the study but offered no commitment to address the harms posed by urban deer, he said.

According to him, the carcasses of deer have become a regular trend.

"I went on an errand and I saw the deer lying like this on the sidewalk, torn up from a road crash. I threw away the deer in the trash, with the neighbor's permission," he said. "There are so many [accidents] that it's ridiculous."

Aside from residents, city officials are facing difficulties in implementing plantation and restoration projects due to deer browsing.

"The cottonwood forest will not be here in 100 years because deer are eating all the baby trees before they can become full-grown trees," said Morgan Valliant, associate director of Ecosystem Services at the Parks and Recreation Department.

A five-year study conducted by the department from 2016-21 found that deer browsing severely affects the growth of cottonwood and snowberry plants. It also found that plants grew 0.04 cm shorter on average. The plants are losing roughly 17 cm in height a year because of deer browsing, according to the study.

Parks and Recreation studied five sites across the Missoula valley, including Grant Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, Pattee Creek, and the Clark Fork River.

"In the Mount Jumbo area, we observed around 200 deer rummaging regularly. But their effect is equivalent to a sum of 2000 deer," said Graham Johnson, the Research and Monitoring Program Specialist for the city.

Valliant also noted that the South Hills part of the city has a higher deer population compared to other areas due to the abundance of gardens, lawns, and lack of predators.

"It’s like setting up a salad buffet for them," he added.

To manage its conservation effort, the city is also faced with the additional cost of deer protection. Protecting the black cottonwood forest alone costs the city an additional $5,000 each year, which has significantly reduced the scope of restoration work due to budget constraints.

However, it's not just the protected areas that are affected by deer numbers; the city's urban forestry program, which oversees around 45,000 urban areas, is also impacted.

The program typically plants 200-300 new trees each year, each valued at around $200 and standing around eight feet tall. But around half of the trees require deer protection, which adds around $150 for equipment and labor costs per tree.

“You can’t just plant trees anymore like 20 years ago,” said Valliant.

Reluctant solutions

Despite the challenges faced by city officials and residents due to deer, many council members are reluctant to allocate funds towards addressing the issue.

Council member Amber Sherill believes that it would be an expensive undertaking, and that once people learn of the potential tax increase, they lose interest in taking action.

"People are concerned about deer until they realize how much it would cost to do something about it. Then, I don't hear many people being excited about deer anymore," she said.

Council member Gwen Jones also believes the issue is not a priority.

"We have a bear problem, and we're working to address that. While deer are causing damage to some homes, the deer issue is not at the top of our list," Jones stated.

Taylor Mudford, a former graduate student in the Society and Conservation Department at the University of Montana, conducted research on community-based deer management in Missoula in 2021. His research found that Missoula residents have a positive view toward the creation of a deer management program in the city.

"Among the interviewees, some were extremely fond of deer and some were extremely disturbed. And there were also some folks who had a moderate view, but all of them agreed on one point - that there should be some sort of management," Mudford said.

While cost has been a barrier in adopting a deer management plan, experts think the cost of doing nothing is even more, and it will only increase over time.

“We haven’t done a good job in bringing together all the data to show the real cost of doing nothing,” Valliant said.