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Victoria overrun by deer as some locals propose cull

A female black tailed deer is spotted grazing on the grouds of Government House in Victoria, BC.

Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

They're dying in record numbers on local roadways, making life miserable for gardeners, devouring agricultural crops with impunity and even becoming a nuisance on the grounds of the Lieutenant-Governor's estate in the heart of the city.

Urban deer have become so accustomed to the plentiful food sources and absence of natural predators in the provincial capital that eco-sensitive Victoria residents are urging local politicians to endorse a deer-control program to capture and kill hundreds of the four-legged interlopers.

"I think there has to be a cull," said Saanich farmer Dan Ponchet, owner of Dan's Farm and Country Market on Oldfield Road. "Something definitely has to be done as soon as possible because it's only getting worse. Out where I live, there's dead deer on the side of the road all the time."

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According to a recent report from the Capital Regional District, foraging deer cost local farmers about $300,000 in 2009, not including the thousands of dollars each year Mr. Ponchet and other farmers spend on deer-proof fences.

The report also said the number of deer-related automobile collisions in Greater Victoria has tripled in the past decade to more than 100 from 35, and noted that animal-related insurance claims province-wide increased to $30.8-million from $15.8-million between 1997 and 2007.

At three cases per 100,000 people, the Capital Region has the province's second-highest incidence of Lyme disease, a rare but debilitating condition that can be transmitted by ticks that live on deer, the report noted.

After media reports about the deer problem earlier this year, the CRD received more than 400 letters of complaint from residents.

But, while experts say a deer cull would be the most cost-effective solution, it's a time-consuming and controversial option requiring public consultation, a formal "deer management plan" and provincial approval.

Saanich mayor and CRD board member Frank Leonard said it's unclear how much public support there would be for a deer cull in Greater Victoria.

"I think it's too early to say if that's going to be the outcome," Mr. Leonard said. "I really don't know if this community is up to it."

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The Town of Cranbrook started work on a deer cull initiative in 2010 in response several bizarre incidents involving aggressive deer, the first municipally supported program of its kind in the province.

Supported by 66 per cent of residents, the Cranbrook cull is due to receive a permit from the Ministry of Forest Lands and Natural Resource Operations in the next few weeks, said ministry wildlife biologist Jeff Morgan, adding that Kimberley and Grand Forks have also applied for deer cull permits.

Other solutions include fertility control and relocating urban deer to the wild, options that would cost twice as much and likely prove less effective than a cull, he said.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that deer populations are exploding in B.C., but little scientific data, since the Ministry of Environment does not keep deer population statistics, said University of British Columbia zoologist Peter Arcese.

"But I think it's quite a safe assumption simply because more people are raising it as an issue," Dr. Arcese said. "It's a well-documented problem across North America."

Based on average densities per square kilometre, biologists estimate that 75 per cent of the province's 115,000 black-tailed deer live on Vancouver Island. However, Mr. Morgan said there are no historical numbers to which those figures can be compared.

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Critics often attribute the problem to human encroachment on deer habitat, but the reality is that most urban deer are born and raised in the city, often living their entire lives in "home ranges" as small as 40 square hectares, he said.

Greater Victoria, with its ample urban parkland and mild climate, is particularly well-suited to supporting large deer populations. However, experts aren't sure why the population has exploded over the past decade "relative to what occurred 30 years ago," Mr. Morgan said

Contributing factors may include a drop in the number of natural predators, particularly cougars, changing social attitudes toward hunting, bylaws banning off-leash dogs and reduced winter kill due to milder weather, Dr. Arcese said.

"Deer are quite adept at figuring out where they're safe, and urbanization has created more safe zones for them," he said.

Murray Fyfe, medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said it's "highly unlikely" that the deer population is putting humans at greater risk of contracting Lyme disease.

CRD staff estimated the cost of developing a deer management plan at $225,000, money that would have to come from local government coffers, B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said last week.

"These urban deer problems are all over the province, and we simply don't have the necessary resources to manage each one of them," Mr. Lake said.

Insurance Corporation of British Columbia spokeswoman Kathy Taylor said ICBC is concerned about the rising cost of animal-related collisions in B.C., but added that "it's far too early" to consider putting money toward a deer cull program in the capital region."

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