How Hunters Can Help Manage Urban Deer

by Braxton Taylor

It’s a quiet Sunday morning—nothing out of the ordinary for this sleepy, central Montana town. Well, almost nothing out of the ordinary. I’m on my hands and knees, creeping around a decrepit ranch house, half sunk into the earth, windows shattered or blown out. It feels like a set from the Call of Duty video game. But instead of zombies lurching around the corner, it’s deer—a handful of does, grazing pleasantly on the windward side of the shack, and in lieu of a grenade launcher, I’ve got a bow and a quiver of arrows.

Using a blown-open door as cover, I sneak closer. I’m crawling now, picking my route across a creaky wood deck, my profile hidden by my elevation advantage over the animals. On the edge of the porch, I slowly rise to my knees, inches at a time, notch an arrow, and come to full draw. A 25-yard, broadside, slightly downhill shot.

But what’s that behind her? I look down the hill, where a woman is washing her truck in a driveway, directly in my line of fire. I let up on my draw, but my arrow makes an unexpected clicking sound against the rest. The gaggle of deer look up, momentarily startled, then take off down the hill toward a train rumbling through town, headed to the Hi-Line and beyond.

Urban deer hunts like this one are becoming increasingly popular as a means of managing the animals in areas where they’ve overrun cities or towns, wreaking havoc on vegetable gardens and lawns while posing a danger to both drivers and themselves on roadways.

The exact logistics of urban hunts tend to vary city by city, but the premises are typically the same: archery only, does only (although sometimes bucks are legal), and limited to specific plots of land in or around a city. Typically, the parcels are golf courses, undeveloped parks, and adjacent farm fields.

Sometimes, though, the hunts allow for close-quarter hunting in backyards—in which case the logistics can get tricky. Just ask Mark Kenyon about his Washington D.C. urban deer hunt: “I knocked on 14 doors, and by the end of that eight-hour marathon, I was emotionally reduced to a corn husk,” Mark wrote after his urban escapade. Landowners in rural towns, however, tend to be more receptive to folks shooting deer in their backyards than they are in D.C.

Take the woman whose Call-of-Duty shack my buddy and I were hunting, for instance (she lived in a different house about a mile down the road). “Heck, you can sit on my porch if you want!” she told us. We ended up chatting for almost an hour after knocking cold-call style on her door—venturing beyond hunting to talk about everything from Montana politics to local issues. In instances like these, I’m reminded of the late Jim Posewitz (author of Beyond Fair Chase), who was always quick to note that the goal in acquiring landowner permission is ultimately to make a new friend.

Before turning us loose, our new friend went on to tell us that the previous year, the cops had knocked on her door with suppressed rifles one evening, asking to shoot “her” deer—a stark reminder that the end objective is to knock down the population, and hunting is only one means to the end—a privilege, in fact.

Just down the road in Helena, the capital of Montana, the city is also struggling with an urban deer fiasco. But rather than allow hunting in the more populated locale, the local police live-trap between 200 and 350 deer every winter and dispatch them with a bolt gun to the head. Since 2008, Helena has killed 1,158 deer (with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of meat donated to local food banks).

Other towns in the state, like Bozeman and Missoula, take a more hands-off approach, with the primary objective of “mitigation” rather than reduction. “At the end of the day, it’s a community decision,” Randy Arnold, Missoula’s regional FWP director, said in an interview with a local paper last year. “I believe the social tolerance for deer is a threshold that we hit before a biological threshold.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Fairfax County, Virginia, wildlife managers have experimented with other deer control tactics, such as sterilization. Between 2014 and 2018, the county conducted an experimental research project to see if sterilizing female deer could reduce the population. Ultimately, it ended up costing $1,436 per deer, which led to the conclusion that it was not feasible on a bigger-picture scale. The county now relies on archery and police sharpshooting control methods.

Other states still, like Wyoming, have a different approach entirely. Lots of towns in the Cowboy State back right up to BLM land, where the rifle tags are readily available. That allows managers to get a handle on urban deer populations on the outskirts of town before the animals even have the chance to become a problem.

But regardless of the methodology, one thing is clear throughout the US: town deer can be a nuisance. Nearly every landowner we chatted with over the course of our weekend hunt expressed frustration with the number of deer running around town. And when we finally did harvest one of the interlopers, its hindquarters were sprinkled with rubber pellets, likely the result of pellet-gun hazing—either on behalf of the sheriff or local, delinquent kids.

But regardless of the pellets, the deer still tasted darn good—fattened up off a summer of veggie gardens and Kentucky bluegrass—and hunting it was a unique, fun opportunity, made possible by the city’s urban deer management plan.

Currently, 13 other towns in Montana also have urban deer management plans, allowing for the removal of animals—either through hunting or other means of take (like Helena). But Montana isn’t the only state with urban deer-hunting opportunities. Most neighboring Western states and a smattering of Midwest and Eastern states also have similar hunts. Do a quick search on your state wildlife agency’s website to see what the opportunities are near you. Chances are, they might be closer to home than you think. Heck, they might even be in your own backyard!

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