Growing epidemic sparking more accidents and lion sightings
~ Rick Langenberg ~
The city of Woodland Park may soon try to recruit qualified and trained hunters to help rid the region of an exploding deer population that wildlife officials say is endangering public safety.
City leaders may mull efforts to establish restricted and managed hunting operations within certain parts of the town, similar to what typically has occurred at the U.S. Air Force Academy, outside Colorado Springs. These could set the stage for giving a limited amount of hunters the right to kill a variety of buck, elk and doe venison game either through firearms or archery techniques, in designated areas with strict rules.
The main goal of the program would be to give Woodland Park a little relief from a growing epidemic: a mountain town with way too many deer. This situation, according to state wildlife officials, has resulted in a nine-fold increase in mountain lion sightings this year alone and has resulted in a bombardment of deer-related accidents, costing motorists close to $400,000 a year in estimated claims.
However, such hunts can spark much controversy and may generate complaints of turning residential areas into a killing field and slaughter house for defenseless deer. When these hunts were first orchestrated at the U.S. Air Force Academy area in the late 1980s, protesters and animal rights activists often arrived in force with bullhorns to warn the wildlife. Some protesters even dressed up in buck and elk outfits and tried to interfere with the hunts.
But in recent years, the program has gained more popularity due to the steep decline in deer-related accidents.
“It is an emotional issue,” admitted City Manager David Buttery, following a council presentation last week led by officials of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We were shocked about the density (of the deer population in Woodland Park). It is a concern.”
More specifically, the city manager and other officials cited concerns over excessive deer in the area leading to a big hike in mountain lions roaming through residential areas and preying on pets and even young kids.
Last week, the city council heard a stunning report from Tim Kroenng, district wildlife manager of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Julie Stiver, a wildlife official.
Based on scientific counts, reinforced with data tabulated from helicopter flyovers, the wildlife officials estimated that the Woodland Park area sprouts with a population of 284 deer within a 7-mile area, which amounts to a count of 40 deer per square mile. There are five prime deer routes identified in Woodland Park by the wildlife officials.
By comparison, the town’s count on a per mile basis dwarfs that of other deer meccas, such as the Air Force Academy and the southwest pocket of Colorado Springs near the Broadmoor. By comparison, the Air Force Academy recorded close to 10 deer per mile, while the southwest corner of Colorado Springs had 20.
More notably, wildlife officials cited a huge increase in mountain lion sightings in Woodland Park this year, with at least several known deaths of pets due to lion kills, along with nearly 100 deer-related accidents in the last year. Woodland Park Police Chief Miles De Young backed up these accident reports, noting that their agency grapples with three to five euthanizing cases of deer a week due to auto/deer collisions.
These statistics made several council members quite nervous, but still created mixed reactions. Councilman Noel Sawyer, a long-time resident, raised questions about the extent of the problem and worries about overreaction. He says he has never struck a deer and wonders whether this is just an abnormal situation this year.
But Mayor Pro Tem Carrol Harvey stated that this is becoming an ongoing reality for Woodland Park. “I have hit a deer,” admitted Harvey.
Buttery cited an increase of mountain lions in the area due to the excessive deer as his primary concern. Lions can typically prey on dogs, cats and sometimes young kids, according to wildlife officials. And protecting yourself or your pets and children from a mountain lion attack can be tricky. Most residents say they are more concerned about the potential of mountain lion attacks than bear sightings.
Deer is one of the prime food sources for mountain lions, which are predominant in Woodland Park and throughout the lower Ute Pass.
Regulated hunts cited as best solution
During their presentation, the wildlife officials outlined a variety of protective measures, including fencing, trapping and relocating, hiring sharpshooters and establishing managed hunting operations. Out of this list, the officials favored the managed hunts as the best option.
According to Stivey, these hunts are gaining more acceptances throughout Colorado. She admitted they created much outrage initially in the Air Force Academy area, but the public came to accept them in recent years.
Kroening also noted that the hunts could feature as many rules as the community wanted to implement. For example, he cited one done in Eiizabeth, Colorado that had extremely tough guidelines, as far as where hunters could take aim at deer and the type of weapons that could be used, and who could participate.
On the upside of these operations, the wildlife officials cited a very cost effective approach and opening up the possibility for significant “venison donations.” “The hunts were very successful and very safe,” said Kroening
On the downside, the regulated hunts would require cooperation from landowners and can create bad perceptions among the public initially. Some critics view these operations as taking the sport out of hunting and committing certain deer to a sure death sentence.
The city manager stressed that a cautionary approach would be taken by Woodland Park, whatever option is pursued.
“It is not like we are going to have people going up and down Lake Street with sub-machine guns,” said Buttery, who stressed that the city would take a sensible approach to handling the issue.
“This is a tough one for me,” admitted Sawyer, who expressed skepticism that Woodland Park has a deer epidemic.
Buttery admitted that many citizens like the deer. But he cautioned that this excessive of a population of deer can create problems.
The wildlife officials say they would work with the city regarding whatever deer limiting option it pursues, but can’t offer any financial resources. “We are broke as an agency,” said Kroening.