Have you seen them yet? Oh, you know who we’re talking about—them. They’ve been arriving the last few days with boxes under their arms, parents or friends in tow, a look of anticipation and hope plastered across their faces. Soon they will be choking the bar scene, filling our favorite restaurants and partying well past our late-night neighborhood potlucks. That’s right, the students are back, and they’ve brought with them duffel bags full of youthful things, like ignorance.
Not that this is a bad thing. Every late August, as a fresh crop of coeds shuffles into town, the Indy publishes its Fresh Facts guide (it’s that glossy covered thing in this week’s print issue). This give us a chance to introduce newbies to—and remind longtime locals of—the nuances that make Missoula, well, Missoula. This isn’t your average college town, nor mountain getaway, nor Montana destination, so it requires a wee bit of guidance to firmly get one’s feet planted on the ground. During that reporting, we inevitably dig up a few facts that strike even natives as surprising. We also inevitably land on a few issues that leave us needing to dig a little deeper to figure out why or how something out of the ordinary came to be.
That brings us to this, the Answers Issue. We’ve spent the past month exploring some of Missoula’s peculiarities, from standard conversation starters like the whole letters-on-mountains thing to less talked about issues like our city’s lack of racial diversity. We developed our own list of questions. We also asked newcomers and longtime residents for additional WTFs. Then we set out to find experts who could shed some light on these things, dispel any longstanding myths and help us get to know Missoula a little better.
Q: Why does Missoula have so many urban deer?
A: Mike Thompson, wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 2, has been fielding calls about urban deer since he started working with the agency in Missoula back in 1987. He doesn’t have any firm numbers for how many whitetail and mule deer are living inside the city limits. “I did a back-of-the-napkin a few years ago,” he says, “and I don’t want to be wrong about what I came up with.” But he confirms the population is bigger now than in years past.
“Just in the numbers of deer people see, the distribution of deer around town, the fact that there are a lot of mule deer now where there didn’t used to be in addition to the whitetail deer—yeah, by every indication, anecdotally I’d have to think that there’s more.”
Missoula’s surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of wild country, the kind that most folks would assume provides prime habitat for deer. However, the city limits offer a food-rich and predator-free paradise for the species, even if they run the risk of getting antlers caught on the occasional volleyball net or garden fence.
“Once deer get to a point where they become habituated, where they learn that humans are not a threat, this is absolutely ideal for them,” Thompson says. (Note: It’s actually illegal to feed deer, and FWP encourages residents to minimize attractants in their yards.)
Back in 2003, the Montana Legislature passed a measure granting cities in the state authority to manage wildlife species for public safety. And in recent years, some have actually turned to that law to cull urban deer populations; in winter 2012-13, for example, police in Helena killed roughly 140. Discussion of a similar effort in Missoula has come up several times, reaching a point in spring 2012 where city council considered culling measures of its own. But it was the debate—not the deer—that died.
Beyond chomping through gardens and freaking out motorists, urban deer can present a public safety risk, Thompson says. High concentrations of deer pose the potential to attract predators like mountain lions. Even deer themselves are unpredictable and possibly dangerous at times, particularly during the rut. Thompson remembers a call he got up the Rattlesnake about 10 years ago. Two good-sized bucks had gotten their antlers locked together and were thrashing around violently.
“Since they were pretty well occupied with each other, we were able to jump on them, tackle them, and then we sawed off the antlers, which really was depressing to the bucks that were relying on their antlers for their status,” Thompson says. “They just kind of slunk off after that. Boy, that was a bundle of energy and testosterone, I tell you what.”