It’s not just humans who compete in the Missoula Valley turf wars: wildlife, too, battle for habitat and their stakes are even higher than ours. As we have doggedly expanded our urban boundaries, former apple orchards and hushed woods have given way to houses and neighborhoods with their requisite landscaping, pet food, garbage cans and cars. The animals—be they bears, deer or skunks—need space and sustenance, and so they have become savvy at navigating the urban setting, hiding under sheds instead of hollow logs, nibbling on exotic flowers rather than boring old grasses. They die as roadkill instead of prey, and they learn to ignore rather than flee people’s presence.
Until recently, most Missoulians have paid notice to wildlife only on an isolated basis, when our cars, yards or kids collide with one species or another. But on March 13, the first meeting of the Urban Wildlife Subcommittee of Missoula’s City Council brought together local city and wildlife officials to assess the bigger picture of wildlife populations and what, if anything, we can do to reduce our conflicts with them. Deer and bears, whose size and numbers give them the largest presence in town, are the group’s main focus, though local wildlife-oriented businesses like Andy Knapp’s Critter Getter Services and Randy Rose’s Rocky Mountain Wildlife Control work full-time helping people address issues with smaller wildlife like raccoons, squirrels and skunks.
While baseline data for wildlife populations and conflicts simply don’t exist on more than a piecemeal basis, longtime locals say they’re noticing more wildlife and more conflicts. And one of the few pieces of hard data was presented to the committee by Chad Bauer, Allied Waste Management’s operations manager, who says garbage crews have been picking up 10 to 40 dead deer a week within city limits—almost 2,000 a year—and taking them to the dump on a volunteer basis.
The committee agrees Missoula has wildlife issues and the question, then, is how to address them. A simple, first step will likely be the proposition of a city ordinance banning the feeding of wildlife, a measure Helena took at the end of last year after a spate of attacks by aggressive deer there. Other ideas are on tap as well: Some suggest culling deer populations in light of multiplying generations that live solely in-town, and the debate over how and why (or why not) we should do this is sure to be an impassioned one.
Unlike some communities—including Helena, where several dangerous conflicts occurred before the city began addressing wildlife issues by creating a task force that’s just now getting rolling—Missoula is planning to get a jump on the issue before it becomes too urgent or too daunting to allow for the maintenance of perspective. Still, a deer trampling that left a high school girl seriously injured in late February has put a fresh highlight on the importance on confronting local wildlife issues before they get out of hand.
How we attend to the issues raised by urban wildlife ought to be well worth watching.
Though there’s no actual census of bears in Missoula, their activities and locations can be deduced to some extent by the calls Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) receives: In 2004, officials received 699 bear calls from locals, more than 60 percent of which were simply reports of sightings. FWP Bear Manager Jamie Jonkel says the Rattlesnake Valley is home to many of Missoula’s bears, and thus to most of the city’s bear conflicts: Garbage cans and bird feeders are most frequently targeted by tempted bears, though savvy bruins can learn to pop open garage doors and windows in search of food.
In the last three years, officials have killed five bears in the Rattlesnake, and relocated more than 20, Jonkel says. In winter 2005, for instance, two adult male bears denning in the lower reaches of Greenough Park woke up in February and resumed the neighborhood raids they had commenced the fall before. “They were just huge, and so fat you couldn’t believe it,” Jonkel says. “And they were just so persistent in their approach to people for garbage—we did have to destroy both of them.”
While most bears come to town in search of food only in late summer, some may try to live in town year-round: In summer 2005, a mama and her two cubs took up city life, evading notice for weeks by sleeping perched in trees by day and scavenging garbage and pet food by night. Jonkel says FWP officials relocated the family to Lolo Pass, but by November the tagged trio was seen walking down the middle of Front Street and up into the Rattlesnake; Jonkel says he won’t be surprised to see them turn up again this spring, and he knows that means more trouble for them and him both.
While many Missoula deer roam the fringes of town, an increasing number live from birth to death wholly in the urban setting, local FWP officials say. And though officials track neither their numbers nor their conflicts (since there’s currently no program or personnel to monitor urban wildlife), they say most conflicts take the form of car accidents and landscaping damage. The Montana Department of Transportation says more than 2,000 deer/car collisions, which caused six human deaths, were reported in 2004.
On Feb. 27, Hellgate High School senior Caroline Gunstream was leaving the Griz basketball game on campus when a deer spooked by the emerging crowd bolted and ran her over. Caroline was hospitalized with a skull fracture and was still recovering at Community Hospital as of press time; she’s expected to make a full recovery with rehabilitation. Mareth, her mother, says the last thing Caroline remembers before waking up in the hospital is Griz star Kevin Criswell dunking the ball about three minutes before the game ended.
Helena officials have shot nine aggressive deer in the last year after a series of conflicts, says Mike Korn, FWP Helena-area coordinator. Last fall, two bucks chased a newsboy under a truck; a buck recently gored a 120-pound dog and killed it; wardens shot three bucks after they took over a playground next to a daycare, trapping the children inside.
Also known as cougars, pumas or panthers, mountain lions’ natural habitat density ranges from two to 10 lions per hundred square miles, says FWP wildlife biologist Mike Thompson, but is likely lower around Missoula since the creation of a special hunting management zone in the valley in the mid-’90s that intentionally keeps their numbers down.
The main concern mountain lions present is human safety (mainly children; pets can become prey, too), Thompson says, since they prefer to kill their own food and are drawn to urban settings by an abundance of fat, lazy deer.
Very few human mountain lion attacks have occurred in Montana, or the rest of the nation, though they’re not unprecedented. In 1998, a 6-year-old boy hiking with his Boy Scout troop was jumped by a mountain lion near Marshall Mountain but escaped with puncture wounds and scratches after a camp counselor saved him. In 1989, two mountain lions attacked and killed a 5-year-old boy riding his tricycle near his house in Evaro. If confronted or attacked by a cougar, it’s best to yell and wave your arms or a stick; don’t turn away from it.
Squirrels in Missoula come in two varieties: the smaller, native American red squirrel, and the larger, nonnative fox squirrel. Their membership in the rodent family means their teeth grow endlessly and require continual work to wear them down.
Andy Knapp, of Critter Getter Services, says he gets lots of calls about squirrels weaseling their ways into attics and crawl spaces, where they build nests and cause general mischief. One homeowner discovered nesting squirrels only after they’d chewed the insulation off his electrical wiring throughout the upstairs. After live-trapping the troublemakers and sealing their entrance, Knapp says, the owner had to spend thousands to rewire the upper half of his house.
Up until four years ago, squirrels regularly caused about a third of power outages in the Missoula area by crawling along wires and simultaneously touching an energized and a grounded section at the same time, which kills both the squirrels and the lights. Jim Krusemark, Missoula division operations manager for NorthWestern Energy, says the company invests about $100,000 annually to install insulating squirrel protectors on poles, and squirrel-caused outages have since dropped to about 18 percent in 2005. Of 884 outages in 2005, 244 were caused by animals and 154 of those came courtesy of squirrels.
Tiny, insect-eating bats generally cause more good than bad for humans, but fears of rabies generate concern when bats are found roosting in attic spaces, chimneys and other indoor crooks and crannies, since bat bites cause most of the handful of human rabies cases that occur in the United States each year.
The only mammal that can fly, bats can squeeze into spaces less than an inch wide in search of snug, warm perches—under tin roofs, siding or trim, or in chimneys—to rest during the day.
If bats are found in a room where people have been sleeping, and thus could have been bitten—most bat bites are so small you can’t feel or see them—doctors recommend an expensive series of rabies vaccinations, says Pam Goldberg, an RNC and disease specialist for the Missoula City/County Health Department. Last summer, for example, a man in the Blue Mountain area awoke in the morning, put his hand on his alarm clock and found a bat there on top of it. His whole family was vaccinated, which proved wise when testing later found the bat to be infected with rabies.
Since raccoons are nocturnal—curling up in alleys, sheds and storm drains to sleep the day away—most Missoulians don’t see them and may attribute their midnight marauding of garbage cans to dogs. Raccoons’ thumbs, while non-opposable, grant them access to doors, latches and windows that keep most other creatures out.
Raccoons are drawn to the same things that attract bears—garbage cans, bird feeders and pet food—and they may also set up dens in troublesome places like chimneys. If confronted, they may tangle with the family cat or dog.
Knapp says he doesn’t get many calls about raccoons—about 10 a year—but he has been asked on occasion to help deal with too persistent or aggressive individuals. One Missoula raccoon set up his headquarters under a woman’s deck and became extremely defensive of the area, chasing off the resident whenever she tried to cross the deck or use the adjacent door. Knapp says he live-trapped and then euthanized the raccoon rather than relocating it because the quick-learning species rarely stops making trouble once it’s started.
People’s failure to fix their felines and cats’ propensity for reckless breeding has led to a population of feral cats, unfed and unaccounted for, in Missoula.
Lora O’Connor, outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of Western Montana, says while there are no tallies of Missoula’s feral cats, national studies have led to estimates of .5 per household, which translates to about 19,000 feral cats in Missoula County. Many feral cats live in colonies of 10 or more in some of Missoula’s 100 or so trailer parks and along Reserve Street, O’Connor says.
For many years, the only attention Missoula’s feral cats received was from people who borrowed live-traps to catch them and take them to the Humane Society, where the cats were then adopted out (if they weren’t feral) or euthanized (if they were). But the Humane Society is launching a new Trap, Neuter and Release Program in April, O’Connor says, that will locate colonies of cats, trap them, and let a veterinarian determine whether they should be adopted out (sociable cats), vaccinated, neutered and released (healthy feral cats), or euthanized (sick feral cats). This broadly tested idea, O’Connor says, helps manage feral cats in a long-term, realistic manner, since cats (and their feckless owners) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The docile, shy skunk makes a living by hunting up bugs and human-related grub like pet food and birdseed. Puzzled Missoulians who think runaway rototillers attacked their lawns during the night—due to the array of round chunks neatly dug out of the turf—may instead be witnessing the work of grub-digging skunks.
Skunks’ well-known stink powers result from two inch-long glands near the anus that can direct highly controlled shots of oil-based, sulfurous essence at would-be attackers up to 10 feet away. While skunks typically raise their tails in warning before cutting loose, Knapp says being on the face-end of a skunk doesn’t mean you’re safe: He’s seen a skunk duck its head and shoot an odiferous stream at a target in front of it.
Should the highly irritating, strong-smelling perfume de skunk saturate you or your dog, here’s a recipe to get it out: 1 quart hydrogen peroxide; 1/4 cup baking soda; 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap.
Urban skunks often dig dens under sheds during spring to house their babies and during fall to get out of the cold. In one recent Rattlesnake case, Knapp says he found 18 skunks, which he live-trapped and relocated, packed under one shed.
Skunks’ poor vision gets them in trouble in the urban setting, where they commonly die after falling into open window wells or being struck by cars.
Death or trap?:
What Missoula might do
When Missoula City Council’s new Urban Wildlife Subcommittee met for the first time Monday, March 13, to begin hashing out Missoula’s wildlife issues, the city entered a discussion already underway in dozens of communities around the nation. Booming deer populations, in particular, have spurred a variety of management techniques in urban areas, and once a city decides to actively manage urban deer, these four methods are the most common: trap and transfer; contraception; regulated public hunting; and sharpshooters. In 2004, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks convened an Urban Wildlife Working Group to examine and document the successes and failures of management programs in other states, giving towns like Missoula a head start on their information gathering. The following has been gleaned from that group’s report.
Trap and Transfer: This popular, nonlethal method of live-trapping deer and relocating them to less dense areas sounds humane but loses much of its charm upon further examination. The extreme stress of being trapped limits deer’s survival once released: One study found only 15 percent of deer remained alive one year after relocation, while a program in Missouri resulted in a 70-percent post-relocation death rate, due to a variety of causes. The cost of such programs can be quite high, running from $400 to $800 per deer in Wisconsin, New York, New Hampshire and California. Fear of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease to new populations also presents concerns.
Contraception: Reducing deer populations by limiting deer reproduction requires treating 70 to 90 percent of does in an area and annual re-treatment, which translates into high costs and much effort for so-far-unimpressive results. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t yet approved any birth control compound for deer, it’s not a feasible concept at this point, though groups like The Humane Society of the United States advocate it as a potential solution and are working to develop practical immunocontraceptive vaccines.
Public Hunting: Towns from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washburn, Wisc., have created controlled public hunts—almost always with bow and arrow—to reduce urban deer populations, and the Montana FWP report concludes that “no other method of population control has proven as effective, economical, efficient, acceptable or capable….” However, FWP’s Mike Korn says, a Montana law prohibiting hunting within city limits renders the idea illegal at this point, and safety concerns and social attitudes make urban public hunting a controversial idea that would take strong local consensus to implement.
Sharpshooters: Authorizing law enforcement, wildlife officials or professional contractors to shoot deer in overpopulated areas has proven a quick way to reduce populations, and less controversial than allowing local citizens to hunt in town. Communities that have hired sharpshooters spend from $100 to $600 per deer (including transportation and processing; the meat is donated to local food banks), and report that the programs are safe.