HIGHLAND — Highland is approaching the second season of its two-year urban deer control pilot program, which officials said was "a resounding success" in its first year.

City officials began researching ways to manage a growing urban mule deer population about four years ago in order to mitigate damage to residential property and from vehicle-wildlife collisions.

An archery harvesting program was approved by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Highland City Council last summer, and a select group of specialists began harvesting deer from four designated areas during the fall months.

In its first year, the program harvested 74 deer, which yielded more than 5,500 pounds of ground venison. Most of the meat was donated to local homeless shelters, providing enough for more than 33,000 meals, according to program coordinator Brian Cook.

"It was a resounding success — absolutely unbelievable," Cook said.

Prior to its implementation, the program was met with mixed reactions from community members, ranging from enthusiastic support to outright opposition.

A petition censured the program as "highly dangerous, unnecessary, and inhumane," and argued that it "poses a severe threat to the safety of all people, (including our children), and pets, and encourages trespassing by armed hunters onto the private property of homeowners."

City officials are calling much of the petition inaccurate, and the concerns it has raised have since made communicating the benefits of the program difficult for those involved, according to Councilman Rod Mann.

"I think it's great when residents get excited about an issue and voice their views. I just want to make sure that their views are fully informed," he said.

Some residents, like Linda Walton, feel that the precautions taken in the program and its potential benefits have been understated from the beginning.

"I think they need to have a really good communication plan that isn't just throwing it on the website and having a meeting that no one comes to," Walton said. "They need to clarify the different advantages."

The City Council held meetings, as well as an open house on July 30, 2013, to discuss the program with community members, but the meetings were not well attended, according to Mann.

"At some point, people have to either go to a meeting or read something, and unless you're really invested in an issue, you probably don't do that," he said.

Contrary to what the petition states, archery specialists were limited to four remote areas within the city where they could harvest deer, city officials said. Archers were not allowed to kill or even retrieve deer from private property without permission from the landowner and involvement from local police, according to the control plan.

"If somebody's trespassing on your property, you call the police," said Mayor Pro Tem Brian Braithwaite.

The six archers selected to participate were among the few that passed a rigorous shooting test. While in the program, each was required to maintain detailed communication with city officials and local police throughout the harvest season, according to Cook.

Each archery specialist had his name, cellphone number and hunter identification number labeled on every arrow they carried, Cook said. Arrows were also painted with certain colors to distinguish them as members of the program.

"The specialists were able to harvest 74 animals last year at zero lost animals, zero wounded animals and zero lost arrows," Cook said. "There were over 800 man hours logged last year by the specialists in harvesting those animals for the program. And they weren't compensated a dime for it."

The harvest season cost the city less than $2,000, which was largely spent on processing meat prior to delivering it to homeless shelters. In contrast, Bountiful has spent about $42,000 on a less-successful deer relocation program, Mann said.

"We're making it a little bit safer place to drive, we're cutting down on the damage that deer do, and we're feeding the homeless. And it's not costing the city anything," Mann said. "That's pretty impressive."

The program's impact on motorist safety has not been identified and will be difficult to determine as most vehicle-wildlife collisions in the area go unreported, according to Lone Peak Police Chief Brian Gwilliam.

Cook says the program will also contribute to health of the deer population as it targets resident urban animals and not those that migrate into the city from other areas. Deer in wild areas typically live two to three times as long as those in developed areas, he said.

"Urban city deer aren't healthy deer," Cook added.

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He expects a smaller harvest this year.

"I think we'll be more on a maintenance level this year," he said. "We're well on our way to exactly what we were looking for in keeping the numbers on a more manageable level."

The City Council will discuss the program in its Aug. 5 meeting. The program's second and final year has already been approved, though season dates have not yet been established.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen