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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Parks Canada has posted signs in Waterton Lakes National Park, in southwestern Alberta, warning of the aggressive deer.

Parks Canada has posted signs in Waterton Lakes National Park, in southwestern Alberta, warning of the aggressive deer. Photograph by: Jen Gerson, Calgary Herald


WATERTON PARK — If more evidence were needed that humans are being pushed from the apex of the predator pyramid, it could be found in the beady, black eyes of the mule deer that have invaded the townsite of Waterton Park.

The tourist hot spot boasts a campsite, A-frame cabins, a handful of small restaurants and stunning mountain views in every direction.

It’s also known for the seemingly docile herds of mountain sheep and deer that walk without fear along the main street, attracting the adoring gazes of visitors and the ire of locals, who surround their trees and gardens in wire fences to prevent undue chomping.

It would be idyllic, except for the weird habits of the deer. In the past few years, they’ve grown meaner; hoofing dogs and stalking townspeople.

“One lady got hypothermia pretty badly because she got chased into the lake. She was elderly and she just grabbed her little dog and backed into the lake,” said Barb Johnston, an ecosystems scientist with Parks Canada.

It is a largely man-made problem that may require man’s best friend to solve.

The situation got so out of hand that last year park staff started marking wayward deer with coloured paintballs when the creatures chased dogs or stared down children.

Those repeat offenders, ones struck multiple times with paintball markets, were to be removed from the park, weeding out the bad apples.

The plan failed.

Half the deer singled out by paint came back. Staff soon realized that the nasty behaviour had, after many years of seeming inter-species harmony, grown to become endemic, generational and, well, creepy.

At first the humans assumed aggressive behaviour was limited to female deer trying to protect fawns hidden among long grass and near garden planter boxes. That theory soon changed.

“It’s females without fawns and even young males and there’s no natural reason they should be doing that,” said Johnston. Rather, aggressiveness has become a learned behaviour.

“I think they just think it’s fun.”

The deer have grown too accustomed to the townspeople and the tourists, who feed them popcorn, candy and sandwiches in exchange for close-up photographs. The deer lost their fear. And then the humans gained some, particularly of a pair of deer with fast front hoofs.

As of this spring, in the battle of Deer vs. Man, the score stands 1-0.

It was time for a change of tactics.

First, Johnston ordered a raft of new signs to warn people of the danger. A company in Calgary produced four neon-yellow triangles depicting a black stick figure cowering under the raised hoofs of an attacking deer.

Three of the signs were promptly stolen.

Then came Christine Jobe, who has been training, breeding and working border collies since 1994.

She’s camped in a trailer in the town. Every morning at 6:30 she takes a few of her dogs on a hazing run of the town, hoping to discourage the deer from fawning.

Something about the shape of the dogs’ snouts, or the speed of the chase, scares the deer.

Grey and mottled after a winter moult, the deer see the dogs and bolt.

Jobe demands the border collies’ perfect obedience with a warbling whistle. When she commands them back from the chase, they obey as if connected to her will by an invisible string.

Although only in its first week, the hazing scheme seems to be working. The deer bolt by sun up. But they soon come back to nibble on unplucked dandelions and well-watered lawns, forcing Jobe to conduct up to four sweeps of the town per day.

The attacks don’t tend to start until June — when a confluence of tourists, summering townspeople and mating ungulate hormones proves too heady to avoid conflict.

“I’ve watched people walking their dogs and they’re acting scared. The deer can sense that. The deer know,” she said. “It’s noticeable, the changed behaviour. They do this little walk. It’s stalking behaviour.”

Johnston said the dogs were considered after she saw them run elk out of Banff.

Being in a park, staff and townspeople are committed to avoiding lethal force, if possible. To that effect, they’ve agreed haze the deer with dogs during the spring and summer for the next three years.

The deer have yet to aim a hoof at the face of any of Jobe’s collies, but to be safe, she carries a plastic bag attached to a stick. Deer may find humans pathetic, but they’re terrified of plastic.

Although most townspeople seem happy to see the deer get their comeuppance, shopkeeper and resident Carol Cruickshank worries about disappointing visitors.

“I really like seeing deer fawns born in the backyard and the tourists, of course, love them,” she said. “I fear that if we chase them all out of town, the tourists will miss seeing them.”

Even the most ardent supporter, however, acknowledges the deer are becoming a problem.

“I’ve been chased many, many times,” she said. “Yeah, it’s pretty scary when it happens to you, especially when you have a child. The dogs, you can’t let them off their leash, but I think it’s part of being in the town.”

She understands the need to boot the grass-eaters out.

“A lot of people are afraid for their dogs’ life. I always carried a stick. An umbrella works really well, too.”

When her son was a toddler, a deer chased the boy until she hit it over the head with a stick. That was two decades ago, and the animals have become far more plentiful since.

Park staff like Johnston are also worried the prey animals are starting to attract cougars. Yet, for conservation and safety purposes, the idea of gunning down the Waterton mule deer in a tourist town remains problematic.

1 comment:

  1. Lol, this is bonkers. Only in Canada, amiright?


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