The city of Craig’s method in resolving the issue of deer within city limits was one state and federal elected officials should try to emulate in dealing with public matters, Craig Daily Press columnist Janet Sheridan writes. Her column on the city’s tact regarding the deer originally appeared in the Feb. 6 Denver Post.

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The city of Craig’s method in resolving the issue of deer within city limits was one state and federal elected officials should try to emulate in dealing with public matters, Craig Daily Press columnist Janet Sheridan writes. Her column on the city’s tact regarding the deer originally appeared in the Feb. 6 Denver Post.

Janet Sheridan: Finding middle ground

City’s conflict resolution on deer issue a lesson in civility for Congress

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Janet Sheridan

I found myself sitting atop a deer-proof fence during the debate over Craig’s resident herd.

When deer visit our neighborhood, I enjoy their power and grace. I’m charmed when fawns peer through our fence like curious children. My computer screen saver is a photograph taken by my husband: a buck with lavish black eyeliner and regal antlers in a neighbor’s yard.

Early one morning, I went for a run and sensed movement behind a shrub. I approached cautiously and saw a fawn, still slick-wet from birth, gathering its unruly legs to stand. I watched the newborn’s first tentative wobbles through the grass and felt privileged.

I would miss the deer, should they disappear from our streets.

On the other hand, I remember the fear of a summer afternoon as Joel and I conversed with another couple in our backyard.

We heard, “Hi, Mr. Sheridan,” and watched Parker scuffle down the sidewalk, carrying a big shoe in each hand. “My brother’s friend left these at our house. I’m taking them back,” he explained and continued on his way.

Seconds later, he turned and hurried back: “Mr. Sheridan, that elk’s staring at me.”

Across the street, we saw a large deer with imposing antlers maintain its focus on the first-grader, then tense, and lower its head.

“I’ve got you, buddy,” Joel assured the alarmed child, rushing to lift him across the fence.

Distracted by Joel’s shouting movement, the deer relaxed, turned, and ambled down the street.

We weren’t experts, but it seemed the buck acted aggressively, and Parker was obviously frightened.

Both sides of me are pleased with the reasonable course of action outlined by the Craig mayor and City Council.

I fled my principal’s office to regain optimism in a kindergarten classroom.

At the “Create a Play” center, I found Sally and Joey in a costuming battle. Sally disliked Joey’s choice of a sombrero and insisted he wear an umbrella hat instead: “This one looks better, Joey. That one’s dumb.”

“Fine. I’m not playing. You’re not the boss of me.”

A red-faced pause, then Sally’s proposal: “I know. How about you wear one of those other hats then — any one you want.”

Conflict followed by negotiation, then play resumed. If children in kindergarten can do it, why can’t elected officials in Washington, D.C., and Denver?

I’m discouraged when political parties show greater interest in defeating one another than in governing. It can’t be easy to make decisions for constituents who range from apathetic to apoplectic, but it is possible.

Ordinary people do it every day.

As children at play, prom-committee volunteers, family members, and co-workers, we resolve disagreements because we’d never get anywhere if we didn’t. Imagine the chaos if those chosen to plan the family reunion disagreed about its location, sent e-mails demeaning one another’s ideas, values, and war records, and then disrupted planning sessions with procedural maneuvers and filibusters, each faction claiming to have the support of the family.

Those elected to local governments also understand the importance of working together.

For the most part, city council members manage to make decisions on divisive issues without demonizing each other, as illustrated by the great deer debate in Craig.

For years, Craig’s quiet was disturbed by sporadic skirmishes over the deer that sauntered the town’s streets, munched people’s landscaping, and faced-off with family pets.

In August 2010, with the herd increasing in number and acts of entitlement, the issue exploded with an uproar that startled unsuspecting citizens and grazing deer alike.

“Everywhere I went, I heard complaints about aggressive deer threatening dogs, children and the elderly,” Craig Mayor Don Jones said. “People living in town shouldn’t have to check their backyards before letting their pets out. So, I scheduled a public meeting with the city council and the Division of Wildlife to discuss options and gather input.”

Then the fun began.

“I arrived early for the meeting,” city council member Jennifer Riley said. “Pro- and anti-deer people filled the room. My colleagues seemed cautious, and I sensed tension from the audience toward the DOW representatives and us. I knew it would be an interesting evening.”

The DOW presented a three-part proposal to control the urban deer: setting traps to capture them for extermination, establishing an archery area outside city limits for hunting them, and stationing skilled marksmen in town at night to shoot them.

An uproar ensued.

Councilors questioned parts of the plan, supported others, and expressed concern for citizen safety.

Members of the public communicated diverging views with differing degrees of unhappiness. The mayor urged all citizens to share their thoughts and ideas in letters or website postings before the next meeting.

His wish was granted.

Around town, pencils were sharpened and keyboards were pounded.

Deer advocates such as Shannan Koucherik became more vocal.

“We were dismayed and wrote a letter saying so,” Koucherik said. “Seventy-five percent of the deer herd would be annihilated under the DOW plan. That’s not game management.”

Other letter writers in favor of free-roaming deer advised those wanting rid of them to build higher fences, control their dogs, use repellents, or leave Craig. They wouldn’t be missed.

Those advocating herd reduction shared personal examples of deer menacing pets, frightening people, and creating traffic hazards. These writers advised those who enjoyed the animals to move out of town with them.

They wouldn’t be missed.

Some felt frequent deer-sightings gave Craig a unique flavor.

“Why,” they asked, “would a town relying on hunters and tourists for income want to be known as a city that slaughters any deer entering it?”

All in all, it was a spirited hullabaloo, and I agreed with both viewpoints.

“Thank God,” I thought, “I’m not on the city council.”

I envisioned future meetings filled with demonstrations, angry outbursts, and impassioned speeches complete with charts on poster board.

I needn’t have worried.

Riley described the approach of the council.

“In the aftermath of the first meeting, I felt we did a good job of retaining our equanimity, not inflaming the issue, and balancing the safety of the few against the pro-deer majority that contacted us,” she said.

Cynics scoffed when the mayor formed a committee chaired by Riley, and comprised of four citizens — two on each side of the deer fence — to make recommendations. “Well,” an acquaintance told me, “that’s a surefire way to avoid doing anything.”

But the committee completed its task the next week.

Koucherik, a member, outlined their work.

“We agreed the DOW plan was unacceptable, then compiled a list of questions expressing our concerns and seeking information,” she said. “Based on our report, the mayor sent a letter to the DOW. The response was discussed at the next council meeting.”

In the end, no part of the plan was approved by the city. Instead, the DOW agreed to handle sick, injured, and aggressive deer on an individual basis when residents reported them.

In addition, the council passed an ordinance implementing a fine not less than $100 nor more than $1,000 for those tempting deer into proximity by feeding them within city limits.

So, a message went out to all deer grown used to city lights: no more free chow, stay healthy, and behave yourselves, or you’re gone.

Now, as snow falls heavily on Craig, painting our world winter white, I watch deer wander between snowbanks, searching for food with dark-rimmed eyes.

They forage, unaware of the decisions made about them by a local government — office holders who listened to a community at cross-purposes and determined a course of action most citizens seem willing to try.

I wish our state and federal politicians could reflect real life as well.

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 6 edition of the Denver Post.

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