Nevada’s state animal is the desert bighorn sheep; somebody forgot to tell that to the mule deer.
Those who wish to see our majestic bighorns must travel to remote areas, focus their binoculars, and scan the precipices of distant peaks. Northern Nevadans who want to gaze at mule deer often can just look out their windows in communities like Verdi, Genoa, northwest Reno, and, especially, Carson City.
The capital city hosts a year-round herd of more than 200 mule deer. They stroll around the grounds of the Nevada State Capitol to the delight of tourists and locals. They cruise the alleys, mingle with diners near restaurant patios, dodge traffic, leap over fences, relax on lawns and gobble up gardens. They act like they own the place and have no fear of humans or their noisy machines.
“Some (residents) love them and others are very annoyed with them, particularly on the west side of town where most of the deer are and people get agitated when their shrubbery gets mowed down,” said Jake Kreamer, a game warden for the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) who has spent the last 11 years dealing with incidents and accidents involving the urban herd.
“There are really two groups of deer in Carson,” he said. “You have the high county herds that come down from the mountains into the foothills in drought years and are migratory. Then we have the year-round Carson City herd that never leaves. Why would they?”
Loving deer to death
The resident deer know a good life when they live it. People feed them, leaving grain, hay and salt licks in their yards, even though it is against the law to feed big game animals. The well-fed creatures are healthy, agile, sassy and bold. The bucks, does and fawns seem as tame as pets. Passersby pose with them for selfies.
But there’s a darker side to the idyllic picture.
Some residents’ properties have features that can accidentally injure or lead to the deaths of wandering deer. Other neighbors, who feed the animals food that their systems can’t process, may be killing them with kindness. And although the deer seem tame, this month is their rutting season, when male deer compete for the attention of does. When a buck’s hormones are calling the shots, Bambi can dip his antlers, charge, and skewer a hapless human who gets too close.
People feed them, name them and think of them as community pets.
“I’ve given out so many warnings and citations for feeding the deer, but it still goes on,” Kreamer said. “The biggest problem with that is the more you feed them, the more deer you attract.” That means more big game in the streets and more traffic accidents, particularly on the side streets at night. A larger herd also equals more predators, including mountain lions and coyotes.
“We always have some mountain lions in the area,” he said. “Normally they just pass through, but with a larger herd they hang around a lot longer.”
Starving with full bellies
In the winter, some Carson City residents put alfalfa or grain in their yards. “They think they are helping the deer, but they are basically killing them,” Kreamer said. He explained that the animals’ digestive systems change with the seasons. In warm months they can eat grasses and grains, but in winter they can’t get nutrition from those foods. “They just can’t process those foods in the winter,” he said. “What they need is to be browsing on bitterbrush, which we have all over Carson City.”
With their bellies full, the deer aren’t motivated to seek out brush. They starve amid a land of plenty.
Traffic and fences also take their toll, Kreamer said. During the summer he may have to euthanize one deer every week or so. “Traffic accidents are common,” he said. “They get hit with a bumper and their legs break and there’s not much we can do about that. We put them down if they are badly injured or have wounds that are badly infected.”
Fences can be fatal
Deer also fall prey to fences. The graceful animals can clear those obstacles with a leap, but as they go over the barriers, they kick back with their rear legs. “A leg can get caught in a chain-link fence and break,” he said. “They can get impaled on the top of a wrought iron fence or get trapped trying to squeeze between the bars.”
He said people who have a lot of deer in their neighborhoods “should choose their fencing material appropriately.” Wooden fences are deer-friendly and iron fences can be modified by adding a wooden rail across the top.
Besides traffic on dark side streets, “those chain-link fences are the biggest danger to deer in the residential areas,” Kramer said.
Learning to live together
Some common garden plants also can be dangerous to deer, while other types of vegetation attract them.
“The reason Carson City and other populated areas have so many deer is that we humans made that happen,” said Jessica Wolff, urban wildlife coordinator for the NDOW. “Carson City lies in a natural winter range for mule deer and they have always used it. Now it’s great habitat year round, because humans create so many more resources for them.”
Our fruit trees, ornamental plants and gardens are a buffet for the animals, who quickly surmised that city folk are no threat. The deer acclimated to the sounds of the city and the sight of traffic.
“They have a pretty cushy life in Carson City,” Wolff said. “They can take advantage of a lot of free calories without a lot of effort.”
They learned to live with us; we need to do the same for them, she said. NDOW is sponsoring a webinar Dec. 15 for residents to learn about mule deer, their habits, and the attractions and pitfalls of urban environments. The session includes advice about methods to protect gardens from hungry deer and other ways we can live in harmony with our antlered neighbors. It’s free and anyone may register online.
It’s not a petting zoo
“They are super fun to watch,” Wolff said. “And you may be able to get close to them and they will seem like pets, but they are wild animals and you can’t forget that.” She said this month, when bucks violently compete for the attention of does, is an especially bad time to get close to deer. When does have young fawns in tow in the spring, she said, herd members also may be aggressive in defense of the babies.
They may seem like they are living in a petting zoo, but deer are prey animals. If they feel threatened, even if no threat is intended, they will fight for their lives. “Don’t get too close and keep dogs on leashes,” Wolff advised.
Enjoy them, she said, but if you live around them take the time to understand them.
Passing the buck
Chris Moran of Reno, a public relations specialist at the Nevada Division of Tourism in Carson City, has had a few close encounters with herd members. She is among those who cherish the animals.
“I see them all the time right outside our office,” she said. “When I walk around Carson City, they are everywhere on the streets and in people’s yards.”
Moran said she was walking near the Nevada Capitol Building one day when she rounded a corner and passed a pine tree. A buck was bedded down beneath the branches. “I didn’t see him until I was right next to him,” she said. “I was startled, more so than he was. I guess he heard me coming. I was very surprised, but he didn’t seem at all concerned.”
She took a photo of the deer with her cell phone. The buck calmly reclined as though posing for the cover of National Geographic magazine.
“He was so calm,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get that close. He didn’t even run away. It was nuts. They really are very comfortable in Carson City.”