Port Townsend city officials: Deer count first step in developing plan

Some members of public complain of acts of aggression

PORT TOWNSEND — A new deer count is expected to be undertaken perhaps by early next year as city officials grapple with a growing number of issues reported by some residents concerning the town’s deer population.

After hearing from a specialist on human-wildlife conflict and testimony from members of the public about being harassed by deer, council members agreed at a workshop on Monday that the next logical step is to obtain as accurate a count as possible of the number of deer living within the city.

Several commentators said they or people they knew had been attacked by deer, sometimes suffering serious injury.

“I’ve been attacked by the deer. I’ve been chased by the deer. A 90-year-old woman was knocked down,” one commenter said.

Council members themselves said they had had their own run-ins with aggressive deer or heard about others.

The discussion of a count followed a presentation from Matt Blankenship, a wildlife conflict specialist who works with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife about deer management strategies used across the U.S.

Blankenship walked council members through the basics of Community-Based Deer Management (CBDM), a program developed at Cornell University and widely used across the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Public opinion will vary greatly in a community about the best way to manage a wildlife problem, Blankenship said — there may even be debate about whether an issue even exists — and CBDM programs provide communities with a structured process for bringing the public together to identify common goals.

“This will be ongoing process,” Blankenship said. “CBDM is rarely on one-off task and often requires a long-term commitment.”

CBDM have been put into place across the county and Cornell manages a database of resources for communities to see what has, or has not worked, in dozens of communities.

According to a map of communities using CBDM programs, Helena, Mont., was the farthest west the program had been put in place. Blankenship noted that Port Townsend would be the first community on the West Coast to adopt a CBDM program.

“Whereas traditional deer management generally is the result of commission- or legislature-driven policies that are translated into regulations applied broadly across the landscape,” Cornell’s CBDM practitioner’s guide says, “community-based management calls for collaboration to formulate locale-specific decision-making strategies and management tactics.”

That involves bringing stakeholders together to determine a desired outcome for the community.

But before any stakeholder meetings, council members reasoned that obtaining an accurate count of the deer within the city made sense as the first step.

Volunteers did an independent deer census in April 2016. They counted 230 deer in a half-hour count that did not cover the entire city.

Council member Libby Urner Wennstrom said she remembered the count, which she believed to have been an undercount of about 50 percent.

Because of the abundance of food and the lack of predators, urban areas often have higher deer populations than rural ones, Blankenship said.

Asked what a typical number of deer in a given area was, Blankenship said that can vary greatly depending on location, and recalled one study that found 20-25 deer in natural environments similar to Jefferson County.

That number drew a laugh from council members. Mayor David Faber said he once counted 49 deer while walking a 1.5-mile loop near his home.

City officials already are working on several other public engagement projects, including potential changes to the Port Townsend Golf Course and rebuilding the public swimming pool, and City Manager John Mauro said organizing a count was likely beyond the city’s existing resources.

City staff would work with Blankenship — who’s personally familiar with the area — on his availability, Mauro said, and a solicitation for a citizens’ task force could be sent out early next year.

In an email, Mauro said the city doesn’t currently have staff with the kind of technical expertise that Fish and Wildlife does.

“It’s my hope in the coming months that we’ll be able to work with the state to identify ways they can either help us capacity build (for instance, for volunteers to count and for those data to help inform the process/problem/solutions) or take on some of the technical work themselves,” Mauro said.

Mauro said Fish and Wildlife has advised city officials to consider the task force approach for the overall project and staff likely will come back to the council with a recommended community engagement approach in early 2023.

What a CBDM program actually looks like will depend on what a community determines to be its desired outcome.

Many have used managed hunts or culls to reduce the urban population of deer.

Mauro said in an email the city will need to work with Fish and Wildlife on a management program and that public feedback will determine the details of the management plan.

“It’ll be important to engage with our community to focus on what problem or problem set we’re trying to solve,” Mauro said.

“There might be a range of actions and solutions, but they need to be scaled and appropriate to the problem we’re trying to solve.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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