Oh, deer

Despite the sudden death of more than 450 deer in the Missoula Valley in recent weeks, local politicians are not off the hook when it comes to solving the city's ungulate overpopulation.

Beginning in early fall, deer started dropping dead in the greater Missoula area. Many were found near water, their noses bleeding, ravaged by a strange fever. Tests identified the cause as epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a virus carried by biting midges.

Wildlife biologists say the disease is showing signs of abating, and so far it has had no real impact on Missoula's urban deer population. The vast majority of deaths took place west of the city, near Frenchtown. But once EHD establishes itself in an area, it is more likely to reappear in the future, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Vickie Edwards. This has implications for Missoula, which faces a deer problem of its own.

For years, Missoula has grappled with the overpopulation of its urban deer herd. In early 2012, the Missoula City Council initiated a search for solutions, looking to Helena, where deer are trapped and killed, as a model. But the discussions went nowhere, because many Missoula residents oppose using lethal force to reduce the population.

The presence of EHD may change the situation. If 450 deer were to die within the city limits next year or the following year due to disease, it would put a major dent in the population. It would also spare council from having to address the city's urban herd.

Councilman Jon Wilkins, who heads the Public Safety and Health Committee where the deer debate has taken shape, says he is "leaning toward birth control" as the solution. He has discovered a Billings-based veterinarian who specializes in shooting deer with sterilizing darts. But even contraception snipers would cost the city money it would rather spend elsewhere.

"There are people who are very adamant about it, and there are people who are against it. It is a very divisive issue," says Wilkins. "If this disease happened within city limits, it would probably take that tough decision away."

Wilkins says he would like his committee to resume discussions about Missoula's urban deer before the end of the year.

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