Culling in the Capital

By Masaki Nakagawa

First light has yet to peek over the top of Mount Helena as Mark Lerum, reserve officer for the Helena Police, pulls out of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters in Helena. His mission: culling the city’s herd of urban mule deer.

Scanning the dark streets, Lerum recalls the time when a buck chased a newspaper delivery boy under a car and kept him there for a half hour, and another when a doe with a new fawn knocked a woman down in her backyard. Such occurrences have become less frequent since the city started its program of trapping and killing deer. The idea to use stun bolt guns on trapped wildlife has been controversial, but to Lerum, contraception, deportation, or sniping aren’t viable alternatives.

“Just imagine you’ve got a deer here standing in that parking lot and you’re going to shoot it and it ricochets off its head. Where’s it going?” he said, pointing to an empty car lot on the west end surrounded by houses.

Several forms of contraception that are nonlethal to humans have been developed, including one patented by Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick of the Science and Conservation Center in Billings. The vaccination makes deer and other animals infertile and is delivered by a dart.

But Ron Aasheim, Helena’s FWP bureau chief, said that this method is expensive and identifying what female deer have been vaccinated would be extremely difficult. The vaccination would also have to be administered to only the female deer population in the 11-square-mile management area.

On the first stop of his early morning patrol, Lerum quietly closes the door of his pickup truck and approaches a collapsible cage designed to close behind deer after they trip a fishing line. The device is baited with sweet feed — a mixture of apples and oats.

This trap is empty — despite multiple mounds of droppings surrounding it — but if a deer had been trapped, the officers would collapse the trap around the deer, essentially tackling the creature. They then would employ a tool used mostly in the livestock industry: a stun bolt gun with a mechanism that fires a blank cartridge which forces a steel bolt outwards and through the deer’s skull.

After the deer are killed the carcasses are cleaned and taken to Tizer Meats. The meat is processed and retrieved by the Helena Food Share. Director Ann Waickman said that since 2008 Helena Food Share has received over 13,000 pounds of venison.

Since the culling program’s inception in 2008, the number of calls about pesky deer to Fish, Wildlife and Parks has decreased dramatically, according to Aasheim. He calls Helena’s management program the “gold standard” for Montana.

Meanwhile, the deer are taking their time to regain their fear of humans. As Lerum parks to check a trap, three animals emerge from the darkness. When he steps toward them, they lazily walk away into a neighboring yard.