Written by William Ishmael

Is “Sharpshooting” the Answer for Deer Population Control?

The word “sharpshooter” likely conjures up several images for different people. Some may think of a military-trained sniper in a war zone, a competition match shooter at a 300-yard range, or a buckskin-clad rifleman trying to shoot the last buffalo on the Great Plains. 

Only recently has the term “sharpshooter” been used to describe someone who is hired to kill deer in a suburban or otherwise “unhuntable” area.  

Sharpshooting became a more popular method for deer herd reduction during the 1980s and 1990s. This method is a quick and efficient way to reduce deer populations in suburban landscapes, especially in areas where tightly controlled public hunting is too risky.

As deer invade suburbs, or as suburban sprawl invades areas already populated by deer, firearm ordinances generally prohibit conventional hunting methods. Also, with fewer natural predators, deer herds quickly grow out of control causing serious problems with traffic safety and destruction of gardens and landscape plantings.

Public debate over how to reduce deer numbers usually takes a long time, sometimes years, allowing the deer herd to grow to even higher levels and making it more difficult to reduce the herd using conventional hunting techniques. Many options have been considered or used over the years– from live-trapping, various birth control methods, euthanasia, and other techniques.

50 deer from an overnight sharpshooting mission in Marinette, WI. 2000

Many suburban residents, as well as municipal officials, are not hunters and are not familiar with modern deer hunting methods. Therefore, they are reluctant to allow hunting in their parks and backyards to those who are licensed and experienced to do so. Some communities have created tightly controlled public hunting opportunities to reduce deer numbers at relatively low cost and minimal disturbance to the neighborhoods. However, hiring contractors to shoot large numbers of deer in a short period of time is most often the method of choice, even though shooting deer in residential neighborhoods is still highly controversial. One could argue though, that the benefits make it worth it– a majority of the deer are donated to the local communities or food pantries, and then the deer population is reduced to benefit the area overall.

One of the first places in the U.S. to use sharpshooters for deer control was in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison. UW faculty, conservation wardens and a few volunteers began deer removal efforts at the Arboretum as early as the mid 1960s by establishing winter bait sites and shooting deer from elevated positions at night. Research conducted at the UW Arboretum in the early 1980s showed that sharpshooting deer over baited sites was, by far, more cost-effective and less time consuming than using several different live-capture techniques. Shooting deer over baited sites in winter by trained and experienced “sharpshooters” was quickly adopted by several communities in the upper Midwest and northeastern states to quickly and economically reduce, or at least control, burgeoning deer herds.

45 deer from a southern Wisconsin community, brought in by 4 sharpshooters over a 3-hour shooting session. All deer were donated to local food pantries or the community residents. 2004

A hired deer sharpshooter does not need to be a military-trained sniper to kill deer under these culling operations. Most deer shot during these suburban culling operations are shot at ranges of less than 50 yards. Certainly, a deer culling professional must be a good shot and have reliable, high quality firearms, optics and ammunition. But, above all, a deer sharpshooter must have good judgement and lots of patience. Shooting deer in suburban parks, green spaces, and residential backyards at night during the winter time requires not only accurate and precise shot placement, but the shooter has to make sure of their target and what’s beyond. Shooting in the suburban areas means there are often patios, swing sets, swimming pools, hiking trails, ski trails and busy city streets around the site. The goal is rapid herd reduction with public safety as the top priority. Suburban deer culling operations are not about recreational hunting, they are set up to safely cull/kill as many deer as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. The main focus being female deer and fawns, with bucks being the secondary choice.

For any deer hunter who thinks that being involved in a suburban deer culling operation would be a fun and exciting way to extend their deer hunting opportunities, think again. Successful deer hunters know what’s involved with pre-hunt preparations and time spent in a stand and how much work is involved once a deer is harvested. Tracking, field-dressing, and dragging even 1 deer is difficult. Now imagine that you’ve just spent 3 or 4 hours in a tree stand at night in bone-chilling February weather in a city park and you think you have shot a total of 22 deer. You better have kept accurate count since you can’t often see where deer drop dead in the snow in the dark. Most communities don’t want deer gut piles scattered around their city parks and backyards so you’re required to drag all the deer you shot, ungutted, to a trailer for transport to a central location (usually a Department of Public Works back lot) for field-dressing and tagging. Once you have the deer unloaded and field-dressed you’ll likely be required to load them onto a trailer again for transport and unloading into a secure facility. That all being said, there truly is not much resemblance to recreational sport hunting.

42 deer during an east-central Wisconsin overnight shooting session, brought in by 4 sharpshooters. 2002

So, is “sharpshooting” the best solution for controlling deer herds in suburban areas or other places where recreational sport hunting is considered too risky? The correct answer is debatable person-to-person, and poses various benefits or risks overall. Usually by the time a community decides to take action to control their deer population, the herd has grown to levels that make it very hard to control with conventional hunting methods, especially archery. 

Hiring insured/bonded contractors to quickly cull several deer over a period of a few days may be necessary to reduce the herd to the point where tightly-controlled public hunting can then take it from there. Hunters are eager to take advantage of hunting opportunities in their local area but establishing a well-planned and tightly-controlled deer hunting program takes a lot of work and will be under the microscope by the media, residents, and public administrators once it’s implemented.

About the Guest Author:

William (Bill) Ishmael worked in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 30 years. He worked as a Wildlife Specialist at Tower Hill/Spring Green office, and then as a supervisor at the Dodgeville office until his retirement in 2015. Bill also was a founding member of Urban Wildlife Specialists, a deer sharpshooting business in the state of Wisconsin. Since retiring, Bill has enjoyed his time fishing, hunting, and being with his labradors, Brenda and Tula. Bill is an active supporter of Meatpole Outfitters and took the time to write this great blogpost. All photos in this blog were provided by Bill and were taken during his time working as an Urban Wildlife Specialist.

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