Controversy abounds as Ann Arbor undergoes another deer cull

Thursday, January 10, 2019 - 8:03pm

Ann Arbor's fourth deer cull began Jan. 2, closing parks across Ann Arbor with the aim of knocking off up to 150 deer by the end of the month.

Ann Arbor's fourth deer cull began Jan. 2, closing parks across Ann Arbor with the aim of knocking off up to 150 deer by the end of the month. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

The last few winters have not been favorable for deer in Ann Arbor. Since City Council approved a deer management program in 2015 to reduce the size of the local population, 274 have been killed and 78 surgically sterilized. The city’s fourth deer cull began Jan. 2, closing parks across Ann Arbor with the aim of killing up to 150 deer by the end of the month.

Sharpshooters from White Buffalo Inc., the Connecticut-based company that has carried out the program for the last two years, will hunt deer on public and private property, including land owned by the University of Michigan, through Jan. 27.

Christopher Dick, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, said the cull is necessary to keep the deer population in check and protect the local ecosystem.

“They basically eat away at the forest understory, so there’s no regeneration of the forest,” Dick said. “What happens when you have these deer take off is this destruction of their own habitat if there’s no kind of predation. If you want Ann Arbor to have healthy parks and vibrant forests that take up carbon and help mitigate climate change, if you want a safe environment for kids to grow up and not be worried about ticks and diseases associated with overabundance of deer, then we really have to think about managing this urban deer population.”

Deer management has cost the city more than half a million dollars over the last several years. Mayor Christopher Taylor was the sole vote against the cull when it was originally passed in 2015. He said while he remains opposed to the killing, he does not dispute the ecological impact of deer overabundance.

“I recognize that there are costs that are associated with a deer population in an urban area like Ann Arbor,” Taylor said. “At the same time, however, I believe that the costs associated with the cull exceed the benefits. The costs are of course financial, substantial, but I also believe them to be values-driven. The notion of shooting animals in Ann Arbor’s parks and natural areas degrades parks and natural areas. It degrades many residents’ sense of home and I believe is inconsistent with our community values.”

This is the final round of the program adopted four years ago in response to complaints from residents, who said there were too many of the animals present in the area, resulting in car accidents and damage to landscaping. Between 2004 and 2015, the number of deer-car collisions in Ann Arbor nearly tripled, going from 31 to 88.

Dick was previously the director of the Edwin S. George Reserve, a wildlife preserve in Livingston County run by the University. He said he observed how the forests there benefited from regular deer culls dating back to the 1940s.

“If you look at the George Reserve, if you look at the understory and just take a walk through the forest, you can see all kinds of regeneration, like up to your waist, of oaks and hickories and other seedlings or hardwood and you just don’t see that here in the Ann Arbor parks,” Dick said. “There can be some occasional regeneration, saplings and things, but for the most part, in many places in the city, it’s just been way over browsed. The forests just aren’t coming back.”

City Communications Director Lisa Wondrash said Ann Arbor was concerned primarily with how the deer management program helped to protect the local ecosystem.

“Part of the problem is the impact of deer browsing and the impact to our natural areas, so we’re talking about the sustainability of plants and animals and insects in our natural areas and whether or not the decrease in the deer population has contributed to that, that’s how we assess the program itself and whether or not we have to continue deer culling,” Wondrash said.

Ann Arbor is not alone in its efforts to keep its deer population in check. To cope with growing deer numbers, other cities have turned to lethal methods. Mt. Lebanon, Pa., also contracted with White Buffalo to pick off deer using a combination of archers and gunmen. Cincinnati residents credit sharpshooters from the police department and volunteer bow hunters with helping to “sharply reduce” the number of deer in local parks.

In Ann Arbor, the program was met with legal challenges from the outset. When the first cull was set to begin in 2016, a group of residents sued, saying the sharpshooters would turn city into “killing fields” and diminish their quality of life. A federal judge allowed the city to proceed with the program, and the case was eventually dismissed. A second lawsuit contested the validity of the cull permit issued by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It, too, was thrown out.

The Humane Society of Huron Valley has been a vocal opponent of the cull. In an email interview with The Daily, Tanya Hilgendorf, CEO and president of HSHV, disputed the claim that there are too many deer in Ann Arbor.

“Ann Arbor’s deer cull is not just a waste of taxpayer money; it is a waste of energy and time,” Hilgendorf wrote in an email to The Daily. “There was never an overpopulation, and there was never a public health or safety threat necessitating closing down a dozen or more neighborhood public parks, next to homes, schools and bus stops, in order to put sharpshooters in them.”

Estimates of the size of Ann Arbor’s deer population vary due to methodological difficulties in getting an accurate count. A 2017 count indicated a 50 percent increase in the number of deer spotted from the previous year, but White Buffalo admitted in March 2018 it had significantly overestimated the size of the local population. In that report, White Buffalo suggested the deer population had grown in certain areas while decreasing in others.

Bernie Banet, a member of Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that supports the management program, said it was essential for the city to combat what he called an overabundance of deer.

“Too many of them are really destructive in many ways to the vegetation, and they threaten people, too,” Banet said. “A few are nice to have around, but it can quickly get to be too much of a good thing. We have some people who are very concerned about killing deer and feel very protective toward them — they feel toward the deer the way they would toward their own pet dogs and cats. That’s understandable, but it’s not helpful.”

Since the cull kicked off earlier this month, protestors from Friends of Ann Arbor Wildlife in Nature have demonstrated near sharpshooter perches around the city, holding signs and demanding an end to what they see as the city’s unethical and inefficient attempts to reduce the size of the deer population.

City Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, introduced a resolution Jan. 7 that would have directed the city attorney’s office to investigate the protesters’ actions. Lumm said the demonstrators were purposefully interfering with White Buffalo’s ability to effectively hunt deer.

“They have actually stopped and prohibited our contractor White Buffalo from performing their culling contracted work on properties that have been identified for culling,” Lumm said. "They were yelling, they were using lights and other things to interfere with this work.”

Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, opposed the measure. He said that because most of the program takes place in Wards 1 and 2, he had heard a lot about it from his constituents.

“I don’t feel that with a good conscience I can empower or encourage the city to engage with residents in a way that somehow interferes with their right to protest,” Hayner said, adding, “I’m not gonna sic the city on these residents.”

The measure was voted down 6-5. Wendy Welch, director of communications for the Humane Society of Huron Valley, said it was fortunate the resolution failed.

“Had it been passed, it would have made protesting the cull illegal,” Welch said. “And whether someone is pro- or anti-cull, what an appalling assault on folks’ Constitutional right to free speech.”

Wondrash would not comment on how the protests affected the ongoing deer cull.

“The cull just began on Jan. 2, so it’s still underway and we’re not going to be talking about any logistical details related to the cull,” Wondrash said. “If there is any impact, that would be included in White Buffalo’s final report to City Council after the deer program is over and when the assessment is done.”

Hilgendorf said the city would be better off directing its resources to other issues, like crosswalk safety or affordable housing.

“There are so many more important issues that need the city’s attention,” Hilgendorf said. “Even if the ongoing cull costs do not make you flinch, when you have men with guns in parks all over the city and on campus it’s going to cause a lot of controversy and demand a lot attention. There is no room for error.”

The city also relies on nonlethal methods of population control. In November, White Buffalo neutered six female deer in Wards 1 and 2, removing their ovaries and releasing them back into the wild with ear tags. A total of 78 deer have been sterilized to date.

Taylor said he thought sterilization could function as a compromise between critics and supporters of the deer management program.

“I think sterilization is really the only method that reduces deer population and does not result in the violent death of deer,” Taylor said. “Otherwise, I don’t believe there is a likely middle ground.”

Hilgendorf said both the program’s lethal and nonlethal aspects were unneeded.

“Population management, whether by ending lives or preventing births, is not necessary,” Hilgendorf said. “There is not an overpopulation. Habitat destruction has caused deer to move in closer to where people live, particularly in a city with small patches of natural areas throughout.  The deer have no place else to go, and that is by human design. The deer have simply become more visible to a growing human population. This is a human problem, not a deer problem.”

Ann Arbor has pursued sterilization as a compliment to the cull under the mandate of a special research permit from the Department of Natural Resources. However, the state legislature passed a law during the lame duck session in December prohibiting the future use of sterilization to control the deer population growth. The city will be able to complete its program, but the state will not permit any further usage of the practice.

Dick expressed doubt that sterilization would have been able to replace the cull as an effective method of deer management anyway.

“There’s always going to be a need for some kind of cull because that’s just the way the deer work,” Dick said. “They’re going to always be reproducing exponentially. So if there are no predators or disease, their numbers are just going to grow inevitably. I think there’s always going to be a need for some type of management program. We need to think the cull is going to have to become part of our culture, basically.”

According to a city report from 2016, a survey of residents found 54 percent supported the continuation of lethal measures to reduce the deer population, while 45 percent of respondents opposed it. Dick praised the city for implementing the program despite the controversy surrounding it.

“Having some management plan with all the steps in place to do it has been really important,” Dick said. “The city has to be commended for following through on it. Some other cities would just say, ‘It’s too hot of a topic, we don’t want to deal with this, let’s just put signs up and tell people to be careful about all the abundant deer.’”