Tooele residents have noticed some new neighbors this summer — populations of deer have taken permanent residence, and they aren’t likely to leave any time soon.
Both Grantsville and Tooele Cities have deer living year-round within city limits, said Tom Becker, a Tooele County wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
The problem has been particularly pronounced this year. The long, cold winter forced large numbers of deer off the mountains, and some of the refugees took residence in local backyards. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, some of the deer have not returned to the high country.
To further complicate the problem, said Becker, deer who have made Tooele and Grantsville their residence have begun to multiply, creating a generation of deer who have never seen their ancestral mountain homes.
This is not only a nuisance to residents whose yards are regularly destroyed by hungry deer, but dangerous for the deer themselves. Becker said urban deer encounter numerous hazards, including road traffic, that they would not normally face in their native environments. This results in high mortality rates and short life spans.
Despite the hazards, urban deer somehow continue to thrive, even in larger Utah cities, Becker said. Meanwhile, traditionally migrant deer are struggling to survive in areas where they have lost their native winter habitats.
For example, the deer who would naturally spend the winter near Skyline Road in Tooele are currently at risk, because they have nowhere else to go when winter snows get too deep in the mountains. They will likely continue to cause problems for local residents in the area until the population dies out entirely, said Becker.
“There’s really nothing I can do to save them,” he added.
The problem is of such magnitude that the Division of Wildlife Resources has started pilot programs to mitigate the urban deer populations. In some cities, such as Bountiful and Alpine, the DWR plans to initiate a trap-and-release program to remove the deer from urban environments and return them to their native mountain homes.
However, experts have already identified a number of problems with the planned trapping program, said Becker. To remove any notable number of urban deer, the DWR would have to dramatically expand its manpower and purchase large quantities of specialized equipment. Then there’s the question of what to do with the deer after they are caught — if the deer are returned to the mountain ranges from which they originate, they often climb down the mountain and go back to where they started.
“There’s no fence. They’ll come right back in,” said Becker. But if the deer are removed and taken further away, DWR biologists aren’t sure they would adapt to their new surroundings. Even if they did, Becker said transplanting deer would expose both the immigrant deer and the native populations to new diseases that could spread rapidly and destroy entire herds.
The DWR is currently conducting studies to determine whether the trap-and-release program is feasible. In the meantime, in communities where it is practical, Becker said the DWR is experimenting with limited hunting inside city limits. Grantsville is one of the few communities where professional farmers and ranchers may be granted doe tags to remove nuisance deer from fields.
Tooele City, however, is not a priority and likely will not see DWR intervention for at least a year and a half, Becker said.
Regardless of what the DWR may do to try to control the deer population, Becker said he doesn’t believe it will be possible to remove all the deer from the city in the foreseeable future.
“This is something that will be reoccurring,” he said. “There’s always going to be deer in city limits. There’s no way to capture them all.”
Because the deer are likely here to stay, Becker said it is essential that residents who do not want deer in their yards or gardens to take precautions against damages the deer might cause — which can be substantial. Becker should know. He said the deer found his own yard this summer.
“You can’t feed them enough,” he said. “They’re constant nibblers and will eat every plant. They will eat everything in sight.”
While scarecrows and deer repellents are sometimes effective, Becker said deer quickly accept the presence of these deterrents and will ignore them if they are used in the same area for any length of time. Dogs, likewise, aren’t especially effective at scaring deer away, because urban deer populations grow accustomed to domestic dogs. In some areas where the deer population is worse than the situation in Tooele, Becker said urban deer have actually attacked domesticated dogs.
Instead, Becker said the most effective deterrents are usually deer-proof barriers. He suggests constructing an 8-foot-tall fence around any garden or orchard that needs to be protected from deer. However, Tooele City ordinances prevent the construction of fences taller than six feet in most areas. For ornamental trees and shrubs, he suggests researching species of plants the deer will not eat.
Becker also warned that residents should resist the temptation to feed any deer that may wander into, or even take up residence in, their backyard. Some foods, such as hay, can actually kill deer if they are unable to digest it.
Additionally, feeding the deer gradually teaches them not to fear humans, which encourages the deer to remain in the city for longer periods of time, eating larger quantities of garden plants, and creating more urban deer that are dependent on humans and unable to thrive in the wild without intervention. In extreme situations, Becker said some deer have become so accustomed to the presence of humans that people have actually been attacked and injured.
“It’s the worst thing they could possibly do,” he said. “Anybody who is not reinforcing the wildness of the deer is causing a problem.”