Hoping for the tranquilizer gun, hearing a "boom" instead

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Emotions flared when GF&P officers shot and killed this deer in Custer

When the emotions settled down a bit, Frank Carroll was able to call it a “clash of expectations.”

He also called it “bad PR.”

Both of which were a lot milder than what he and others had called it on his Facebook page the night before, when emotions were still running hot and Carroll posted a picture of the deer hobbled by garden wire before it was shot and killed by state Game, Fish & Parks Department officials.

It happened just down the hill from Carroll’s house in the northern part of Custer.

It wasn’t the first stop for the whitetail doe, which apparently wrapped itself up in the wire while foraging in someone’s garden. Reports had come in from other Custer residents over two or three days. Sad reports about a deer that wasn’t doing that well.

The GF&P officers responded to Carroll’s call to the county dispatcher Tuesday morning about a wired-up deer. Soon after, one of the officers shot and killed the deer.

On that much, everyone agrees. Beyond that, it gets complicated, as narratives about such situations often do. Telling the story on Facebook, Carroll said, “heroic officers drove in SWAT fashion” and, shot the deer without warning that they would use legal force, much to the shock of Carroll, his wife, Audrey, and their daughter, who were all at their house nearby.

Responding on behalf of GF&P today, regional supervisor John Kanta of Rapid City said the officers were far from SWAT-like in their approach.

“We didn’t come in with lights and sirens and jump out with guns and shoot,” he said. “These are sensitive situations. We’re cognizant of people looking on and how that might look to them. And we are very concerned about safety. We absolutely do not like discharging guns in populated areas.”

Sometimes, though, they have to, Kanta said. Officers prefer to use a small-caliber .22 rifle for such chores. In his case it was a larger .22-250, he said.

As you might imagine, Carroll’s update inspired sad and angry reactions. They included a flurry of comments from John Wrede of Rapid City, a retired wildlife professional who worked for GF&P for many years.  Wrede is a frequent critic of GF&P, and never inclined to sugar coat his words. He called the shooting of the deer near Carroll’s home “insensitive, immoral incompetence.”

Wrede said the incident was “worth a letter to the governor’s office.” He said there were options other than a firearm, including trapping, netting or tranquilizing the deer and removing the wire — apparently a tomato cage — that hobbled it. Then it could simply be left alone or relocated to another area, possibly even a Native American reservation, with tribal permission, Wrede wrote.

In addition, Wrede wrote: 

“These people are supposed to be professional enough to use immobilization equipment to manage situations like this. They are still apparently following the policy that if an animal of any species is perceived as a nuisance or troublesome to manage, they just kill it because the law lets them. The outfit is broke.”

Kanta said wildlife officers got involved after Carroll called the Custer County Sheriff’s office and said, “something needed to be done” with the deer, which was still moving around with the wired constraints but not moving around very well.

Conservation Officer Ron Tietsort of Custer made the initial contact and was joined by Jim Ganzer, another GF&P wildlife officer from nearby Custer State Park.

“My officers are saying that when he (Carroll) called he said we need to do something about the deer,” Kanta said. “And when we arrived his wife was there and what she stated was this thing needs to be put down. I’m not saying she expected us to shoot it right in her backyard, but that’s what they were suggesting.”

Frank Carroll agrees that they called in and said something had to be done about the deer. He didn’t necessarily think that was to shoot it on his property, nor was it what he expected. But he also said he understands the policy in general and probably even supports it, especially in a community that regularly kills deer to keep the population in control.

But Carroll, a retired U.S. Forest Service public information officer, doesn’t understand the way it was handled. He called it a really bad public-relations move.  And he emphatically denies that his wife said or suggested that the deer should be put down, calling that “a complete fabrication.”

“No, my wife has never said ‘put that down’ to anybody,” Carroll said. “My wife is the most anti-hunting person on earth.”

Audrey Carroll is also an animal lover, who gets familiar with and cares about the deer that come into her yard, he said.

“She knows these deer. They were born right here in this yard and there were generations of them that come through here, seven to 11 every year,” Carroll said. “So here shows up one of her favorites who comes to her at the sound of her voice, 30 feet away, and clearly it has a problem, the wire wrapped around its haunches. It really hampered her movement, but she is moving around.”

Carroll, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, was home but in the house looking out the window when the deer was shot. His daughter was with him, also looking out. His wife was on the deck. All three could see the officer shoot, but they could not see the deer, which was down a incline out of sight, get hit.

Which was a good thing for them. The actual moment when a bullet hits a deer isn't much fun to watch, even for many hunters. It is an integral part of hunting, and wildlife management.

Carroll said neither he nor his wife asked when the officers arrived what they intended to do. But he said they thought they were there to help the deer, rather than kill it -- an assumption he now calls naive.

Carroll said that when one of the offices climbed into the back of a GF&P pickup to get the right angle downhill for a shot, he thought the officer had a tranquilizer gun, until he heard the “boom.”

After that, the version of the story told by Carroll and his wife is that the officers showed excitement and slapped hands in celebration.

“Two officers high-fived each other, and one officer said: ‘Anybody want a deer? We’ll help you drag it up the hill,’” Carroll said. “And Audrey said ‘You didn’t tranquilize it?’ And they said, ‘No,” then went and got the deer.”

Kanta said his officers told him a different story.

“The high-fiving and all that? I talked to both officers and asked if they did that. And they said ‘absolutely not,’” Kanta said. “They had to drag it up an incline. And to maintain balance, they each had an arm up. They were trying to figure out how she would have seen something that looked like a high five, and they thought maybe it was them, dragging the deer, with their off hands up, flailing.”

Kanta said the officers did ask if the Carrolls knew anyone who might want the deer, “as we always try to make use of deer for food in cases like this, if they are salvageable.” He said he believes Tietsort found a family that took the deer.

Carroll also questioned the safety of the shot. It’s hilly, rocky terrain with pine trees, but other homes are not far away. Carroll said that while there is some rocky ground six or eight feet tall behind the deer, that was the only stop between the shooter and a house nearby.

Kanta said his officers assured him the shot was safe.

“They’d been getting a lot of calls on this deer. And we passed up a lot of opportunities because it wasn’t a good shot,” Kanta said. “They’re saying they absolutely had a good shot with a safe backstop. They were shooting from an elevated position. And sometimes in those situations the ground behind is a backstop.”

While tranquilizer guns can be used in such situations, Kanta said it’s more common for GF&P officers to euthanize the deer that end up in trouble in towns.

“We get a fair amount of these throughout the region, throughout the state — bucks with Christmas lights in their antlers, deer with buckets on their heads,” he said. “So we deal with these, and typically we don’t tranquilize and remove them.”

Kanta said that’s particularly true in communities where deer are seen as a management problem, and periodically controlled by snipers selected and authorized for that purpose. City and GF&P officials cooperate on that.

“Custer is a case in point,” Kanta said. “We are in the process of issuing them a kill permit for 75 deer this year. It’s hard to spend time and money tranquilizing and cutting the wire off a particular deer, not knowing if there’s an infection or not, and then in a couple of weeks euthanizing 75 deer, maybe including this one.”

Carroll said he understand the deer-management objectives and supports them. But he also understands public relations between a government agency and private citizens. And this incident did nothing but hurt public relations for GP&P, he said.

In retrospect, Carroll said euthanizing the deer was probably the right decision. And he admits he was probably being unrealistic to think the wildlife officers would come, capture and care for the deer, rather than euthanize it.

“It was probably a clash of expectations,” he said. “They came here not under any false pretenses, and they did what they came here expecting to do. And in a town that’s going to kill 50 or 75 deer, I can’t argue with what they did. We need to shoot a bunch of them here.

“But it wasn’t what we were expecting them to do,” Carroll said.

And he still criticizes the way it was handled, suggesting that GF&P should work on its public relations and education skills, particularly when it comes to how such animals will be handled and why.

“This could be a teachable moment,” he said. “I get it, why they do it. But they should make their policies transparent and publish them. And when you call about an animal like that, you should know that animal is probably going to be put down.”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.