Maurita Holland says the last straw was when the deer ate her rain garden. The retired School of Information prof replaced a patch of turf with a sunken garden of native plants–only to discover that the deer that roam her northwest Ann Arbor neighborhood love native plants. Plus hostas, lilies, holly, and almost every other plant in her yard.
Bernie Banet’s match in the powder keg was his frustration after years of fruitless attempts to get city and county officials to do something about his deer problem. A retiree who lives off Geddes near Gallup Park, Banet told WEMU-FM that, when he first saw deer in his neighborhood ten years ago, “he thought they added to that natural beauty.” Then they ate his arbor vitae hedge and killed a pine tree.
Banet says he’s been complaining to councilmembers and a county commissioner at least since 2009, but received only excuses for why nothing could be done. He thinks that’s because no organized group was calling for steps to control the size of the herd. So he was excited last March to learn about Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance (WC4EB).
In February and March, Holland and two other members of Wild Ones–a group promoting natural landscapes–shared their concerns with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. They also formed WC4EB, enlisting Bernie Banet and others all over town: people whose landscapes were being eaten, whose backyards were littered with deer droppings, whose dogs had been hurt by deer, whose cars had collided with deer; and people who feared Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks.
When the new group approached city councilmembers, it found Ward 2 independent Jane Lumm most willing to listen. To build political backing, Holland worked her extensive personal network (she is past president of the Ann Arbor Rotary and of Master Gardeners of Washtenaw County); Banet used his own network and nextdoor.com. Other members launched a website, wc4eb.org, crammed with facts about deer and arguments for limiting their numbers.
By early summer, Banet says, “Jane saw she had public support and was willing to stick her neck out” by writing a resolution, in collaboration with city administrator Steve Powers. Adopted unanimously by city council in May, it asked staff to prepare a report on options for managing the deer population in consultation with the county parks, the U-M, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Powers’ report recommended hiring a contractor to do “substantial work, including public engagement and information collection.” It concluded: “If the plan recommends lethal methods, and City Council agrees with the plan, a cull could occur in Fall 2015.”
Council unanimously accepted the report and appropriated $20,000 to hire a consultant “to develop a community endorsed deer management plan.” When that plan comes back to council at the beginning of March, the city will face a difficult decision.
Ann Arbor is far from alone in its quandary. It’s estimated that when European settlers arrived, about 20 million deer lived in what is now the United States. By 1900, commercial hunting had reduced their numbers to fewer than half a million. But once hunting was limited, the deer population bounced back with astonishing speed. Thanks to the virtual elimination of large predators and urban sprawl–which produced mile after mile of tasty, hunter-free lawns and landscaping–the U.S. is now home to at least 30 million deer.
“Scientists have shown that habitats and deer are most healthy when deer density ranges between 15-20 deer per square mile,” the WC4EB writes on its website. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ proposed target for the deer population in Washtenaw County is much higher: twenty-eight per square mile. But according to a report to the Washtenaw County parks commission last year, even that figure has already been exceeded. It estimated that the county has an average of thirty-five deer per square mile–and “[r]ecent aerial studies have shown the density in Ann Arbor to be up to 76 deer per square mile.”
If either figure applies citywide, Ann Arbor could be home to 1,000 to 2,000 deer.
While such numbers are only guesstimates, there’s no question the population is growing. One indicator: From 2004-2008, an average of thirty-two vehicle-deer crashes were reported annually. From 2009-2013, the toll jumped to forty-seven.Herds now live permanently on the U-M’s North Campus and in the Arboretum, and individual deer have been spotted everywhere from Water Hill to Burns Park.
“The great majority of deer you see in the City were born here–they are mostly Ann Arborites,” WC4EB member and landscape architect Chris Graham wrote in an email to the group. “It is our habitat full of food, cover, and no hunting that is immensely appealing and nurturing for them.”
At the city’s first public meeting on the issue, at Huron High in December, consultant Charles Fleetham conducted a scripted interview with MDNR biologist Kristin Bissell. If the community decides that deer are a problem, Bissell said, it will need to choose a method to solve it and know how it will measure the results. That metric could be deer per square mile, lessening conflict such as car-deer crashes, or assessing populations of songbirds or native plants. Asked about the most common nonlethal methods to deal with overabundant deer, she mentioned feeding bans, signage, and clearing brush from roadsides–the latter two to reduce car-deer collisions. “No contraceptive is registered for use in Michigan,” she added. “Our deer specialist is not aware of any Midwest community that has done it.” Trap and release, she said, “is not on the table. No one in Michigan wants more deer.”
The MDNR does have a system in place that permits killing deer–but, the biologist cautioned, “once you decide to manage the population you are never done, which is why you have to have community support over years.”
The first public speaker, Sandy Fortier, introduced herself by saying she lives near the Foster Road bridge on five acres that “I planted all myself.” Though deer have eaten her flowers and all her shrubs, she said, she knows “nothing more beautiful … I don’t want anyone killing my deer.”
Jill Fritz, Michigan director of the Humane Society of the United States, and Humane Society of Huron Valley president Tanya Hilgendorf and education director Karen Patterson urged controlling the population through nonlethal methods such as sterilization. Others urged unspecified nonlethal methods in order to “show our children nonviolent solutions.”
Robert Simms of Ann Arbor Hills voiced an opposite opinion: without predators, he said, “the deer grew to large numbers and will run out of food. Shooting is better than starvation.” Another speaker described a deer injuring her dog when it got too close to a fawn. Of the twenty-eight people who spoke, eighteen supported lethal methods to control the deer population.
Communities around the country, from suburban Boston to Minneapolis, are already “culling” their deer herds, either with volunteer bow hunters, paid sharpshooters, or both. But other cities have debated using lethal methods and decided not to–or used them, then stopped.
That’s what happened in Barton Hills. The exclusive village just north of Ann Arbor is at least a decade ahead of the city in its deer problem. A few years ago, a longtime resident recalled that the first time she saw a deer in Barton Hills was in 1982. Just eighteen years later, the DNR estimated there were 600 deer in the village–two for every human resident.
By 2000, Barton Hills was hiring sharpshooters to thin its deer herd. “The removal of deer in Barton Hills over the 2000s was hugely successful,” Chris Graham emails. “Some 700 pregnant does were removed from the properties where folks were very happy to have them taken–the difference in the flora (I have used Trillium as an indicator species) was quite obviously positive.”
By 2009, however, support for culling had faded. With fewer deer, there was less damage, and new residents opposed continuing the hunt. Inevitably, the deer population swelled again, and according to Graham, within a couple of years environmental damage was again evident. So, Graham says, “they tried a more normal approach the year before last,” hiring hunters who set up two baiting stations far from any houses. He says that didn’t work, because the hunters didn’t go out often enough and the deer quickly learned to avoid the stations.
Graham, who supports culling, sees several lessons for the city: consider bow-hunting rather than rifles; set up enough stations and use them often and early; cull at least once a year; be patient because it takes time for the environment to recover; and don’t stop once the herd is reduced.
The Huron-Clinton Metroparks have been culling deer since the 1990s. Paul Muelle, the system’s chief of natural resources, says the impetus was fewer ground-nesting birds in the park–deer have been known to eat eggs and nestlings. Tests with fenced “exclosures” revealed that the deer were also devouring “spring wildflowers and small trees.” Muelle says that from 1999 to 2011, a total of 3,139 deer were removed from the eight HCMA parks. Those that remain, he says, are healthier–heavier and less prone to disease. Based on the Metroparks’ experience, Muelle believes that “a controlled hunt in Ann Arbor could be successful … The key is understanding that it is a long-term process that won’t be over in a year.”
The Metroparks have no residents, and answer to no voters. Could Ann Arbor really reach a “community consensus” to use lethal methods to control its growing deer herd?
HSHV’s Tanya Hilgendorf hopes not. “We empathize with the frustration of those who have unwanted deer trampling their backyards,” she emails. “They have been contending with the issue without help. They want remedy. That is very understandable. But … I don’t see us prepared as a community, a university town, to shoot deer with guns or arrows year after year in our neighborhoods and parks, and deal with the ugliness of that decision.
Hilgendorf points to Rochester Hills, where car-deer crashes were reduced “through awareness, education and specific prevention strategies.” Outside Michigan, she says, “many communities are sterilizing, either temporarily through ‘vaccines’ or permanently, and finding satisfactory results reducing the population over time.”
Maurita Holland and her allies in WC4EB respond by pointing to the example of Cornell University in central New York, which tried surgically sterilizing does, but ended up bringing in bow-hunters to thin its campus herd. They also quote a study published by Cornell’s extension service this past December, which concludes, “There is no peer-reviewed, published evidence to suggest that the use of non-lethal methods (currently available and permissible) alone can reduce deer populations to target levels.”
Holland writes that her group “seeks a sustainable, long-term program that addresses Ann Arbor’s problem of deer overabundance, acknowledges our city’s value of the natural environment, advances our stewardship of that environment and all of its inhabitants, and assures the protection of our citizens’ health, safety, and physical property.” WC4EB wants the city to adopt measurable goals to reduce the number of deer in natural areas so that key indicator species return and flourish; to largely eliminate complaints about landscape damage; and to steadily reduce the number of car-deer crashes.
Lethal methods will be necessary, Holland believes, to meet the objectives: “We cannot wait years or decades for new [birth control] drugs or technologies to be developed,” she concludes.
After a second public hearing, at 7 p.m. on February 5 at Slauson Middle School, deer will be back on city council’s agenda next month. Meanwhile, after mating last fall, the does of Ann Arbor will each bear two or three hungry fawns this spring.