Tim Woodward: Valley invaded by deer; worst still to come

Think you’ve seen a lot of deer this year? You’re right. Just remember: They’re still wild animals.

Special to the Idaho StatesmanSeptember 1, 2013 

If you live along the Boise River or in the Foothills — and chances are even if you don’t — you know we’ve been invaded.

They’re everywhere. In our parks, on our streets, in our yards.

No, I’m not talking about politicians going door to door (though yet another campaign invasion is also beginning). These invaders are four-footed rather than two-tongued. Our valley has been invaded by mule deer.

Strictly speaking, invasion is the wrong word. The deer, after all, were here first. Its just that there are more of them now.

A lot more. The Statesman ran a photo recently of some mule deer swimming right alongside humans rafting the river. I’ve been floating the river for decades and had never come within 50 yards of a deer. Now they swim up and ask you for a beer.

I’ve always thought deer were supposed to be wild animals. These days, you can’t even frighten them away.

When I opened the front door to pick up my newspaper on a recent morning, a mule deer eyed me casually from my yard. She was busy with her breakfast — my favorite rose bush. I’ve babied that rose bush for years. I love its deep red petals, which were rapidly going the way of Anthony Weiner’s mayoral aspirations.

Because nothing original came to mind, I resorted to the time-honored method people use when they want a pest to go away, especially when it’s bigger than they are.

“Shoo!”

I might as well have sung her a lullaby.

“Shoo. Go on. Git!”

She didn’t stop eating; didn’t even look up.

“Shoo! Beat it!” I said, raising my voice and waving my arms. By this time I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet from her.

She looked up and placidly gazed in my direction. I could almost hear her thinking: “What’s up with these crazy humans around here? And by the way, what are you doing in my yard?”

We’ve lived in our neighborhood for 25 years and have never seen as many deer as we have this summer. Including two fawns, I counted seven of them crossing the street in front of a neighbor’s house the other day. One appeared to be carrying something brushy in her mouth as she crossed his lawn, a possible indication that he’d invited them to a potluck.

If this keeps up, it’s only a matter of time before they’re using our grills and lounging in our deck chairs.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game office on Walnut Street has gotten as many as five calls a day this summer from motorists concerned about hitting deer.

“The reason we’re seeing so many of them in town is the drought,” Toby Boudreau told me. “There’s less water higher in the hills so they come down to the lower elevations where they can live.”

Boudreau is a man who knows his deer. He’s the department’s statewide deer and elk coordinator. As long as the drought persists, he sees the urban deer population increasing.

“A mule-deer herd can grow 28 percent a year, so the population can double in three years,” he said. “Every doe has fawns. And some have twins.”

In other words, the real hordes may be yet to come.

You know that spare room you’ve been thinking of renting to make a little extra money? …

One of the reasons people enjoy living in Boise, Boudreau said, is the proximity to wildlife. We love seeing bald eagles along the river, Bambis in our parks, squirrels harvesting our tomatoes, crows plundering our grapevines.

“We’ve created a perfect habitat for them,” Boudreau said. “All these beautifully maintained lawns and gardens and ornamental shrubs are very palatable to deer. They love them. Intentionally or not, we’ve created habitats right here in town that are very conducive to growing mule deer.”

In Helena, Mont., he said, so many deer are living in town that the city is attempting to return them to their natural haunts.

“We’re not quite to that point yet,” he added.

Because more and more of us have them as neighbors, it’s important to remember that deer are still wild animals. They only look tame.

“They’ve become habituated to humans. They’re not tame, but they’re tolerant of us. In the wild, you can’t walk up to a deer. In Ann Morrison Park, you can. They’re not necessarily a danger to people, but you need to give them their space. If they’re cornered, they’ll defend themselves.”

The biggest danger comes, as is usually the case, when people interfere with nature. A soft-hearted animal lover sees what appears to be a lost fawn, pitifully looking for the cold-hearted mother that abandoned it in a city park, and takes the poor, helpless creature home for a hot meal and a bedtime story.

“The mothers hide their young while they go feed,” Boudreau said. “Then they come back to nurse the young. The fawns have been told by the mother to stay there, but people think they’re abandoned so they take them home and feed them. Then, when they become aggressive, they don’t want them anymore.

“ … There was one instance where a deer raised by humans gored two people. A woman was down and bleeding, and when someone tried to help, the deer gored him.”

In 2011, a deer partially raised by humans attacked a cyclist in Sun Valley. In Southeast Idaho, one chased a farmer on a tractor.

Moral: Admire the Bambis all you want — from a distance. When it comes to taking care of them, mother knows best.

Especially when it comes to food.

“People food is terrible for them,” Boudreau said. “It can kill them. Their stomachs aren’ t designed for it. They’re designed to digest woody plants.”

Including roses. Clumsy humans, at least this one, manage to prick themselves just pruning roses. Deer can nibble the tender petals we love without so much as touching a thorn.

“They have very dexterous mouths,” Boudreau said. “They can eat the petals and leave everything else. After the roses have stopped blooming, they can eat the rose hips that are left behind. They can pick the leaves off of alfalfa and leave the stems.”

Tired of having your prize flowers used as snacks? Malodorous sprays (Deer-Off is a good one) will keep the deer at bay, but have to be reapplied if rained on or sprinkled. (You might want to increase the applications during campaign season.) And the staff at any good garden store or nursery can tell you which plants and bulbs not to buy because they’re deer delicacies. I can tell you from bitter experience that tulips top the menu.

Other than that, it’s live and let live. You can’t get away from them — they’re along the river and in the hills for pretty much the length of the Treasure Valley — and they aren’t necessarily just passing through.

“Some are year-round residents,” Boudreau said. “The climate in the valley is a lot better than it is in places like Council or McCall or Lowman, where the snow gets so deep. The valley and the habitat we’ve created in it is perfect for them. It’s a great place to be a deer.”

Maybe we should be grateful.

At least they’re not skunks.

Tim Woodward’s column appears in the Life Section every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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