Aarica Marsh: Deer culls aren't so evil

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 6:46pm

On slow news days last semester, The Michigan Daily opinion staff would sit around the conference room table, scouring the Internet for anything interesting to talk about. Derek (my then co-editorial page editor) would enthusiastically break the silence: “Let’s talk about the deer cull!”

“Absolutely not,” I mechanically commanded every time somebody broached the subject. “We are not talking about the stupid deer cull. Keep looking.”

In August 2015, the Ann Arbor City Council voted 8-1 in support of contracting professional sharpshooters to decrease the number of deer in the city over the next four years. Two successive resolutions clarifying plans for the cull passed 10-1. In all of the resolutions regarding the deer cull, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) was the only voter to dissent, believing there was not enough community consensus to warrant the cull.

“I fully emphasize and appreciate the concerns with the deer-human interaction.” Taylor said after the initial City Council vote last August. “At the same time, there are many members of the community whose sense of place in their city will be substantially affected by shooting deer within our borders,”

To an extent, I agree with Taylor: The city government should not ostracize its citizens or diminish residents’ opinions through its resolutions. Hundreds of residents feel very strongly about the deer population in their hometown. They want the city to seek alternative solutions, and the city owes its residents a proper and thorough investigation into all issues of concern.    

But the most vocal opposition to the cull comes from the Humane Society of Huron Valley, headed by Tanya Hilgendorf, and local animal rights groups such as “Save the Deer.” Their main argument against the deer cull is based on ideas of nonviolence, innovation and the ethical treatment of all living things.

“I was always in awe of this cultural and intellectual mecca,” one resident said in reference to the Ann Arbor community during a November City Council discussion of the deer cull. “What happened to seeking creative, non-violent solutions? Where are the best and brightest now?” 

I understand the resistance against the deer cull — I really do. Personally, I am awed by our Earth. All living things are important and contribute to the lives humans lead; we should be respectful and considerate of all life; we should be innovative and find solutions that result in minimal harm.

But the belief that physically reducing the deer population perpetuates the most harm is a privileged (and slightly naive) perception.

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Before human settlement, the wetlands, bogs and semi-forested areas of lower Michigan offered deer herds protection from predators and an abundance of vegetation to eat. However, by 1870, deforestation and unregulated hunting led to the extermination of deer in the southern part of Michigan. Meanwhile, deforestation in northern Michigan created an environment for deer populations to flourish.

Near the end of the 19th century, the state government began implementing methods to control deer populations. In 1915, William Oates, game commissioner at the Department of Natural Resources, estimated that there were only 45,000 deer left in Michigan. Soon after, Oates proposed the “buck law” to the state legislature: A proposal that suggested hunters should only be allowed to take down one buck per hunting season.

With the implementation of strict hunting laws, coinciding with yet another change in deer habitat, Michigan’s deer population rebounded. In the 1930s, field investigators reported a shortage of deer food and shelter in the cedar-swamps they had examined. In 1937, Ilo Bartlett, Michigan’s first deer biologist, claimed there was a combined 1.125 million deer in the upper and lower peninsulas. Despite action to reverse the dramatic increase in deer, the population reached a peak at 1.5 million in 1949.

Twenty-three years later, Michigan’s deer population fell by 1 million. However, the major factor in the reduction of deer wasn’t the more lenient hunting laws, but rather an increased loss of and damage to deer habitats.

To remedy these losses, Wildlife Division Chief Merrill “Pete” Petoskey and staff biologist John Byelich developed the Deer Range Improvement Program. In 1971, part of the funds garnered from selling hunting licenses was earmarked for commercial forestry. Through the creation of 70,000 acres of forest openings, conservationists worked to improve the lives of Michigan deer.

In 1989, the DNR’s efforts — with the effect of several mild winters and the public’s feeding of deer — helped the Michigan deer herd reach a new high: an estimated 2 million deer. Deer-vehicle accidents and signs of distress among deer populations increased once again.

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Today, the DNR and other deer conservationist groups aim to maintain a balanced doe-to-buck ratio. Deer management is its area of expertise; it has been trying to support ecological balance by monitoring wildlife. While plenty of mistakes have been made during the century that Michigan has been grappling with its deer population, the DNR and other conservationists holistically understand the lives of deer and their effects on the environment.

According to the DNR’s website, “State government has a legal mandate and moral responsibility to act, even if contrary to public will, where the integrity of the resource is threatened. Thus, the real challenge of the future of deer management will be to carefully sort out the social from biological, to respond to the will of the public for the former, and to take leadership, even if unpopular, for the latter.”

Humans have irrevocably interfered with the natural trajectory and populations of animals. To say otherwise is to ignore history and the effects it has on life today. To protect the lives of 100 deer because they are cute, fluffy mammals that are increasingly visible in urban and suburban lives is hypocritical.

Fences may keep deer out of our yards, but what about the rest of the ecosystem? What about the marbled salamander, Hungerford’s crawling water beetle, the barn owl, the smoky shrew or the dozens of other species currently on Michigan’s list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need? Why are deer — who often have negative effects on some threatened species — more important than other living things? Why are we questioning conservationists’ sense of ecological balance when they have been managing deer for decades?

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have shut down all conversation about the deer cull last semester. Editorial boards are inherently supposed to be democratic and my complete refusal to approach the subject was slightly dictatorial. However, despite all of my research and reading, my stance on the cull has yet to change.

Maybe it’s because I’m from a rural area where people rely on hunting to survive. Maybe it’s because all of the deer meat has been used to provide for hungry families. Maybe it’s because I care more about the wildflowers than the deer. Or maybe it’s because I listened to the deer experts who have come to a consensus: Far worse ecological disasters can happen without deer control.

Aarica Marsh can be reached at aaricama@umich.edu.