Urban deer. Whether you love them or hate them, they are a reality in the Columbia Valley and many other communities across B.C.
Towns that consider deer a danger or a nuisance have sought numerous ways to remove the hoofed mammals, including culling and hazing. But researchers are looking at another possibility for municipalities to add to the toolbox: translocation. And so far, the results are showing potential.
Translocation means moving deer from an undesirable location (urban areas) to a preferred location (wild mule deer habitat). It has been nearly three years since a translocation trial began in the East Kootenay. Citing a desire to find a non-lethal option to reduce urban deer populations, the trial was a cooperative undertaking that included Invermere, Kimberley, Cranbrook, Elkford, the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations, and a team of volunteers, with the project lead taken by biologist Ian Adams through Cranbrook-based VAST Resource Solutions.
The first translocation took place in February and March 2016, with 60 mule deer caught and released: 13 from Invermere, 20 from Kimberley, 15 from Elkford, and 12 from Cranbrook. In March 2017, an additional 25 deer were translocated from Kimberley and Cranbrook, all to an area 28 kilometres up the Kootenay River Forest Service Road northeast of Canal Flats. Then in March 2018, another 50 were removed from Kimberley.
Mr. Adams says going into the study, there were some big questions that needed answering. One was whether they could improve on a previous high mortality rate in capturing and moving deer out of communities. Due to a newer drug combination targeted specifically for ungulates, this trial has had great success in relocating the animals during the initial capture and release (only one mortality was recorded during the actual capture and release).
“One of the main successes is we can capture a lot of deer efficiently and safely,” says Mr. Adams.
The other two questions were what happened to the translocated deer after they were moved, and how their movements compare to non-urban deer populations. That answer has proved more challenging to summarize due to highly individualized results from the trial.
Forty-seven of the 85 deer translocated in 2016 and 2017 were fitted with radio collars, providing researchers a stream of data on the animals’ movements. Ninety-five non-urban deer were also collared for comparison, fitted between December 2014 and April 2017.
Of the radio-collared urban deer, 40 survived more than 60 days. The trial report states 12 of 40 collared deer (30%) moved to and stayed in a community; seven of those 12 generated formal complaints. Fifteen deer were never located in a community or rural area. Six deer resided primarily around rural properties, but deer in rural areas generated only one complaint.
If you notice a radio-collared deer in Invermere, that is because there are actually a couple that come in and out of Invermere that were part of the translocation trial. One is a deer translocated from Invermere to the Lavington Creek area in February 2016. She stayed there until about May of that year, then headed north and found her way back to Invermere. She stayed less than
a week then migrated to her summer range above Panorama Mountain Resort. Since then, she has traveled back and forth between May and October each year.
“Her summer range is exclusively on the ski hill runs and backcountry above the ski runs,” Mr. Adams says of the ‘Panorama deer’. She sticks to areas outside the Village of Panorama itself; using the Rocky Mountain Trench bottom areas in winter and migrating to upper elevations like the ridge top on Mt Brewer each summer.
There was another doe that spent the summers in Farnham Creek then migrated back to Invermere for the winters. She was predated last summer near Farnham Creek. However, another translocated deer that was moved in 2017 found her way to Fairmont last winter then moved to Invermere this spring.
“The two deer that returned to Invermere (via very different routes and timeframes) demonstrated natural migratory behaviour, leaving town in spring 2017 for high elevation summer range,” reads the January 2018 report. “More than any of the four communities, the District of Invermere is situated directly on prime mule deer winter range, so movement of mule deer to this town in the fall is to be expected.”
In 2018, the town of Kimberley translocated another 50 deer. But a caveat was added to the contract that the city must humanely destroy and dispose of any translocated deer found within any community.
This new stipulation has put a curveball into the translocation game, as at least one translocated deer from the 2018 move found its way to the nearest community of Canal Flats. One or two adult deer, plus their offspring, appear to be hovering in the village now.
Adrian Bergles, CAO of Canal Flats, says they have been kept in the loop on the matter, adding that prior to these deer, the village has been “relatively fortunate” with minimal urban deer issues in comparison to some other communities.
Going into the study, Mr. Adams and Provincial biologists made it clear the translocation trial would only be considered a success if the deer did not just find their way back to urban areas.
“The objective of this project is to test how urban mule deer respond once they’ve been moved to natural environments,” said Mr. Adams prior to the launch of the trial in 2015. “For the project to prove successful, translocated deer must not return to either their home community or any other urban area. From the outset we’ve been clear that deer moved from one community are not to become a nuisance elsewhere.”
There have been some run-ins in the village. Canal Flats resident Justin Key posted on social media in December, warning other residents to watch out for the deer after his dog, Tika, was injured. Mr. Key took his 13 year-old dog outside in the evening and figures the deer must have been bedding in the grass.
“This deer comes over and just stomps on her,” he describes. “So I run down there with the barbecue brush and smack it away.”
He said it was a doe and he suspects it had young around, though he did not spot any. Mr. Key describes his dog as gentle; he is known to play with ducks, and does not chase deer.
Mr. Key, a resident of the Flats for about eight years, suggests the solution to nuisance deer is to “put ‘em in the freezer.”
Other commenters on Mr. Key’s Facebook post suggested similar solutions.
Cranbrook resident Rhonda Brass phoned the Pioneer to advocate for the translocated deer in the crosshairs in
Canal Flats, and to call for the stop of the deer cull overall.
“The deer have really not harmed anyone,” Ms. Brass says.
Ms. Brass feels a special connection to deer after several memorable encounters, including when her father was dying of cancer and seven deer came out of the forest, up the footpath to her parent’s door, and stood there for more than 10 minutes in silence. It made her father smile, and Ms. Brass feels the deer were paying their respects to her father with their gesture.
She says communities should use other methods to discourage deer from becoming a nuisance, or simply re-translocate the deer if they migrate to an urban area.
But Mr. Adams says the problem with relocating an already translocated deer is it does not change that deer’s behaviour.
“We have tried moving deer a second time and that simply ended up with the habituated deer again wandering until she found another community where she continued her behaviour and eventually had to be put down because of aggressive encounters.”
When the Pioneer interviewed Kimberley CAO Scott Sommerville in December, the city of Kimberley was in the process of getting the contract order in place to tranquilize the deer in Canal Flats.
Deer are a pressing issue in Kimberley, with urban deer leading to run-ins in the community, especially with dogs, Mr. Sommerville reports.
“You can’t throw a snowball without hitting one,” Mr. Sommerville describes.
The city has tried other methods including hazing [using shepherd dogs to push urban deer out], but the deer just return. Kimberley pays for an educator to go into classrooms and teach students how to avoid deer conflict, and they are watching with interest the study of birth control for urban deer. The District of Invermere’s choice to do selective culls is not really something the Kimberley council “has an appetite” for, Mr. Sommerville says.
The CAO in Kimberley points out while urban wildlife has been placed in the lap of municipalities, the responsibility should not fall to individual communities.
“Cities are not geared to deal with this. We don’t have jurisdiction over wildlife. We have to ask for permission to deal with the province’s deer because they won’t, and we feel obligated to protect public safety, so we willingly accept responsibility, and paying for it with taxpayer money,” he says. “We don’t have conservation officers, we’re not biologists. But we do it because the province isn’t and we’re worried about the safety of our residents and our pets.”
The permit states Kimberley has up to one year to remove the deer and any offspring that move into an urban area.
“Whether we do remove deer born to translocated does will depend on our ability to be 100% certain that they belong to the translocated doe. That is not always possible,” explains Mr. Adams. “For example, on a recent visual check of Canal Flats, we saw 3 does, including one translocated in March, 2018. There were 5 fawns with those 3 does – there was no way to tell which fawn belonged to whom.”
But aside from the translocated deer in Canal Flats, the majority from the 2018 trial have not caused conflict.
“The vast majority of deer translocated in 2018 have remained out of the communities,” Mr. Adams comments. “It is unfortunate that any face lethal removal, but if the alternative is either culling or allowing urban populations to increase unchecked in places like Kimberley, Invermere and elsewhere, then this seems a reasonable outcome. Yes, a compromise. Translocation gives deer a chance.”
Urban deer translocation as a whole is still quite new in the province, reports Holger Bohm, fish and wildlife section head for the Kootenay Boundary region.
“We are the pioneers on this,” Mr. Bohm says. “There are other cities that have thought about this (translocation), but this has been trialed, to my knowledge, only here.”
He says the requirement to mandate the originating community to deal with the persistently-urban deer is to make sure the problem is not simply moved around communities.
“If everybody translocates and they show up in neighbouring communities, then nobody wins,” says Mr. Bohm. “In the bigger picture, if this is to be working in the future for all communities, we have to make sure the communities know they are responsible for those animals even beyond translocation.”
With the trial still underway, Mr. Bohm says they are hoping after this winter to have enough data to conclude the trial. They are still working through some questions, including how many animals can be put into backcountry areas suitable for the deer, and whether urban deer carry any diseases that wild deer don’t and if there could be contamination concerns.
“It’s still a trial. We still have to figure out some of the kinks, and we hope we can tie it in a package that will make it operational and make everyone happy,” he says.
He says there have been calls already from other regions wondering how the trial is going and whether it could be implemented elsewhere.
“The ultimate goal is to give communities that are dealing with urban deer multiple options of dealing with them,” says Mr. Bohm.
And the trial has answered definitively the question of whether urban deer would have higher rates of death by predator. Mr. Adams says some opponents of translocation have said in the past that sending urban deer in the wild would be akin to sending lambs to the slaughter. However, the results proved similar rates of predation for urban and non-urban deer. But, the translocated deer did have higher rates of mortality from other causes, including starvation.
To read the two-year trial update, see http://www.vastresource.com/EKUDT_FR_30Jan2018.pdf.