Fewer deer were spotted during this year’s survey of Eau Claire’s urban herd, but the biologist who did the count believes there wasn’t much change in the population.
John Dunn, a retired state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, tallied 13% fewer deer than the record high he saw in 2018’s count, but warned that weather conditions made it difficult to spot the animals.
“This is not a significant drop and other mitigating circumstances make this drop even less significant,” he stated in his survey results.
Flying over several parts of the city on March 11, Dunn recorded 307 deer — down from the 354 he saw in 2018’s survey. Though it was a decrease from last year’s record high, the latest count is tied for the second highest in the six years the city has done a helicopter survey.
In a report delivered recently to Eau Claire’s Waterways and Parks Commission, Dunn wrote that overcast weather is better for helicopter deer surveys, but it was sunny on March 11, making trees cast shadows that make deer harder to see.
Deep snow on the ground also changed deer movement habits, making them tougher to spot, he stated. Instead of congregating near hardwoods that don’t have leaves during winter, deer stayed closer to evergreens because their boughs made less snow accumulate around their trunks.
Among the areas where the deer count was lower than previous surveys was the city’s wellfield — a wooded area on Eau Claire’s north side where they have been known to live. Dunn suspected the numbers were down because deer were staying under evergreens.
“The deer were very reluctant to leave the pines despite the helicopter hovering right over them,” he wrote.
Despite Dunn’s caveats, the declining numbers seen in the well fields were encouraging to Jeff Pippenger, the city’s community services director. He said the city doesn’t plan to change its current deer management strategy, which includes annual events that allow youth and disabled hunters to bowhunt for deer in the well fields.
“We really don’t have many alternatives,” Pippenger said.
In the three years of limited archery hunting in the well fields, 26 deer have been killed, according to Dunn’s report. And Pippenger noted that almost all have been does, which helps reduce the amount of reproduction in that herd.
While Dunn praised the bowhunting as “a very positive event,” he contends that its limited scope will not significantly reduce the size of the herd in the well fields.
One part of the city where Dunn saw a notable increase in deer numbers is in the Oakwood Hills area on Eau Claire’s south side.
“The deer herd increased by 58% from last year’s record number,” he noted.
There were 52 deer spotted in Oakwood Hills on March 11 — including a group of 24 along a wooded hillside south of Keystone Crossing — up from 33 in last year’s count.
That part of Eau Claire includes wooded areas that are bordered by homes and businesses just south of Oakwood Mall. Dunn surmised that deer could be seen there in greater numbers because people made food sources available to them.
“This is most likely the result of either intentional feeding or bird feeders that can be accessed by deer,” he wrote.
A DNR-enforced feeding ban is in place in Eau Claire County due to deer found in the area that have tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
Despite that, Pippenger said findings from Dunn’s aerial survey indicate people are still feeding deer.
“Those piles of corn stick out like a sore thumb when you don’t have any foliage on trees,” Pippenger said.
While helicopter surveys are the most effective way to count deer within a city, Dunn said they still only spot between 60% and 80% of the population. And he admitted that the poor weather conditions puts this year’s survey in the middle of that range.
Eau Claire still has 50 deer per square mile, Dunn said, which is about three times higher than the generally accepted standard for an urban area.
The city did a deer survey in 1993, but didn’t conduct a comparable one again until adopting a deer management plan in 2015 that recommended annual counts.