PRESS EDITORIAL: The folly of trying to make wild residents leave town

In a show of either chutzpah or naivete, the city government of Port Washington has decided to take on one of the most daunting challenges of the age: controlling the wild animals that have taken up residence in the city. Only a clueless optimist would put the chances of success at anything above zero.

The populations of deer and coyotes living in Port Washington, as in other urban areas, are growing at an exponential rate, and there is nothing good about that. But, as cities across the country have learned, there is no good way to change it.

Of the two unwanted animals, one is thought of as handsome and noble and the other as creepy and vicious. The handsome one is the bigger threat.

John Muir described the white-tailed deer as “a charming animal and a great credit to nature.” The legendary conservationist wrote that in the 19th century, a quaint time when deer lived only in the wilderness.

In the 21st century, according an essay published by the Nature Conservancy, “It’s hard to think of a more insidious threat to forests, farms and wildlife, not to mention human health and safety, than deer.”

There are a lot more deer today than there were in Muir’s time. In fact, there are many more than just 25 years ago— an estimated 30 million white-tailed deer in America now, compared to 500,000 in the 1990s. Millions of them live in cities.

Deer cause car crashes that hurt and kill humans, wreak havoc on vegetation—both the garden variety and valuable plants and trees that grow in nature—and spread disease.

The Nature Conservancy considers deer the greatest threat—worse even than climate change—to forested habitats. Scientific studies blame the decline of North American songbird populations in part on the destruction of nesting places in shrubs and tree canopies by voracious and too numerous deer.

Coyotes, once known to most people as unseen creatures whose howls could only be heard in western movies, have also moved into Port and many other towns. But unlike deer, they don’t do any damage. They don’t eat plants and, because they are smarter than those dim-witted deer, they don’t cause street and road crashes by getting in the way of vehicles.

Contrary to the damaging behavior of deer, coyotes actually make some positive contributions to their urban habitats by feeding on such pests as mice, voles, rabbits and groundhogs, not to mention rats when available.

Still, coyotes, smaller cousins of wolves, are wild predators. They will gladly add small pets to their list of prey and, though they do their best to stay away from humans, there have been a few reports of attacks on people, widely separated by years and miles.

Many people find them scary, and the women who were threatened by a coyote in Rotary Park last year had good reason to be afraid. That animal was thought to be sick, and a police officer properly dispatched it with a well-placed bullet.

Neither coyotes nor deer are welcome as city dwellers, but human residents don’t have much to say about that. The types of eradication measures cities have attempted vary widely, but they have one thing in common—they all fail.

If any herd reductions are realized by cities using sharpshooters or archery marksmen to kill deer or coyotes, or nets to capture and remove deer, or tranquilizing darts to enable sterilizing female deer, they are short lived. A large volume of scientific literature reports that when animal populations are stressed, the animals respond to an imperative of nature to reproduce more often and in greater numbers.

Research indicates that is true of both coyotes and deer. The survivors of eradication attempts refresh their populations with more offspring.        

What is Port to do? For openers, it should label the sharpshooter option politically unacceptable. No matter how sharp the shooters, the idea of bullets flying around town surely would not sit well with some human residents. And shedding deer blood in the animals’ favorite hangout, the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, would likely cause a march on City Hall by deer friends, of which there are quite a few.

Besides, the deer are so tame on the bike trail that it would be easier to drop a lasso over their heads and lead them to the nearest abattoir than shoot them.

The Common Council is awaiting a wildlife management plan. You can count it being complicated and expensive. How about a simple, cheap alternative: Let nature work on the problem.

Coyotes eat deer. Bambi lovers may want to avert their eyes from the following words, but coyotes kill a lot of fawns. Studies have shown that deer herds are smaller where coyotes live. The coyotes cull young deer and sick deer from herds, occasionally hunt adult deer in packs, or bands, as they are properly called, and also feed on deer that have died from other causes, no doubt reinforcing their preference for a taste of venison.

Instead of devising ways to kill coyotes, educate the public on how to avoid interaction with them and how to behave safely in accidental meetings. Give the undomesticated canines a chance, as they thrive in the city, to show they can provide a public service by at least limiting the growth of the resident deer herd.

That approach would require coming to terms with a fact of 21st century wildlife: Deer and coyotes are here to stay.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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