Ashland will attempt its first census of deer in town using biologists, Southern Oregon University students and volunteers.

Ashland will attempt its first census of deer in town using biologists, Southern Oregon University students and volunteers.

SOU Professor of Biology Michael Parker is helping to devise a plan for counting deer during a half-hour window during the early morning hours of Oct. 13.

The count will help establish a baseline number for the deer population in Ashland. It will be repeated in the spring.

Over time, fall and spring counts could be used to develop a long-term database of deer population trends, Parker said.

"One of the main purposes is to start gathering some real data about deer in the city. There are no data," he said. "There's so much speculation going on. We want to see if we can use citizen volunteers to collect meaningful data."

The city will be divided into seven to nine sections, with volunteers walking through the different areas filling out data sheets on what they observe, Parker said.

Keeping the count at 30 minutes will help ensure that deer aren't double-counted, he said.

"We don't know what will happen with the first deer census. It may be a complete flop,"Parker said, but noted that he thinks the count will be worth the effort for any data it can uncover.

Using volunteers to help determine wildlife population numbers is not without precedent.

Across North America, thousands of volunteers help count birds at feeders during winter months for Project FeederWatch. The bird-counting effort provides data to help scientists understand long-term bird population trends, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, which manage the program.

Ashlanders join in Project FeederWatch every year at sites like North Mountain Park.

As for deer in Ashland, many people enjoy seeing deer in town, but others are upset that the animals eat gardens and landscaping. Some deer also have attacked dogs and people, possibly because does with fawns have felt threatened.

Parker said while discussions about deer are common in Ashland, people don't know whether the urban deer population has increased dramatically in recent years, whether the deer distribution in neighborhoods has changed over time, if more fawns are being born in town, or if the number of sick and injured deer is on the rise.

Ashland residents have discovered dead fawns lately but its not clear what has killed them.

SOU Professor Emeritus of Biology Frank Lang, who is helping with the upcoming deer count, said while some residents have blamed the deaths on gray foxes, nature may be controlling the deer population with starvation, disease and predators.

"One of my personal feelings is that the ecological destiny of deer is to end up as cougar protein," Lang said.

The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department has fielded several reports of cougar sightings in Lithia Park and North Mountain Park this year.

Parker said he doubts gray foxes are to blame for the fawn deaths. If vegetation is being eaten down because of an overpopulation of deer, fawns may turn to less nutritious or even toxic plants — such as English ivy.

He said deer can be harmed when people put out corn, hay and alfalfa to attract the animals. Such feed isn't a natural part of a deer's diet. Overcrowding around the food also can allow diseases to spread, he said.

Parker said if Ashland does discover it has a booming deer population, there's not much city officials can do about the matter. But he said one positive step could be to adopt an ordinance banning the feeding of wildlife.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg — who sowed the seed for the deer census when he asked if data could be gathered on the deer population — said city staff are researching ordinances in other towns that ban the feeding of wildlife.

"I'll at least bring it up for the City Council to consider," Stromberg said.

Stromberg is involved with the deer census project, along with Ashland City Councilor Carol Voisin.

Parker said methods to control deer populations can be expensive and difficult to carry out.

Some cities have hired hunters with bows and arrows to stalk deer, he said.

In Helena, Mont., police have trapped and killed 400 deer with bolt guns in the past two years. The deer are processed at a butcher shop and the venison is given to local food pantries, the Helena Independent Record reported earlier this year.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved the action to deal with an urban deer population in Helena that was projected to reach 1,800 animals this year if no action was taken. A fall 2010 count revealed 189 deer in the city in advance of the spring fawning season, the newspaper said.

While some Ashland residents have proposed using birth control on deer, Parker said that approach is costly and generally ineffective.

He said the best way for Ashlanders to deal with deer could be to plant deer-resistant plants, install sturdy fences, pick up fruit that falls from trees and avoid feeding wildlife.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or