Roundtable: Should the deer cull be stopped?

Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 3:16pm

Starting Jan. 1, 2016, and continuing through Mar. 1, sharpshooters will kill and remove 100 deer from parks and natural areas in the northern and eastern parts of Ann Arbor in an attempt to reduce the overpopulation of deer in Ann Arbor. This decision came in September when City Council voted 8-1 in favor of a plan to cull 100 deer after requests from residents in the city’s first and second wards earlier in the year. After the approval, a group called “Ann Arbor Residents for Public Safety” launched a “Stop the Shoot” campaign to protest the cull, noting public safety concerns and a lack of effectiveness. The same group filed a lawsuit last week in federal court asking City Council to stop the cull. In May, the city of Ann Arbor published a 1,738-page report making recommendations for deer management. The report states, “the population of white-tailed deer has significantly increased,” and details extensive surveying of Ann Arbor residents’ opinions about reducing the deer population. More than 70 percent of the surveyed residents in the overpopulated areas support lethal methods of reducing the deer population. However, the lawsuit filed notes that Ann Arbor currently has 15 to 20 deer per square mile, an appropriate amount according to Michigan Natural Features Inventory biologists. 

In the following roundtable discussion, Daily Editorial Board members Kevin Sweitzer, Kit Maher and Madeline Nowicki give their takes on the situation in Ann Arbor and discuss whether the cull should be stopped.

 

Kevin Sweitzer:

It is important to keep the deer population in control because an out-of-control deer population is more prone to spreading diseases. Lyme disease, which is transferable and deadly to humans, is more prevalent in areas with deer overpopulation — such as Ann Arbor — and during years with warm winters — like this winter. Though there have been no diagnosed cases so far, it is highly likely that this overpopulation could cause problems in the near future. The city’s report even went so far to say, “With Lyme disease increasing in West Michigan and in Ohio and with an increasing local deer population, Lyme disease will almost certainly appear if deer numbers in Ann Arbor are not reduced to low densities.” If ever there was a reason to cull the deer population, this would be it.

Another potential problem is Chronic Wasting Disease, a disease that spreads rapidly throughout overpopulated deer populations and has already had outbreaks in areas as close as Lansing. Though humans cannot contract CWD, it still poses many significant problems. Deer with CWD act strangely and are less afraid of humans. This leads to more interactions with humans, car-deer crashes and attacks on pets. An outbreak of CWD also prevents any deer meat from being harvested for human consumption, effectively ruining the city’s plan to feed the homeless with the meat harvested from the deer cull.

A benefit to the Deer Management Plan is that it’s proven to be successful compared to other methods. A report from the state of Indiana found that the safest and most cost-effective way to control a deer population is through United States Department of Agriculture-approved sharpshooters. These sharpshooters, who are highly trained by the USDA and have a spotless safety record, will be not be shooting within 400 feet of any residence without the written consent of the homeowner. They’ll also be using flash and noise silencers to preserve normalcy for residents in the area. This plan is the safest option, according to the Indiana report.

The current plan calls for the removal of deer from only the most highly overpopulated areas in Ann Arbor. By immediately removing excess deer, the city can protect the fragile ecosystems that are harmed and destroyed by deer. After the cull, the city plans to give the meat from the deer to Food Gatherers, an organization that will distribute the meat to the homeless.

If we do not carry out the cull now, and instead wait until the overpopulation has grown more severe, more deer will be at risk for CWD and we will not be able to feed the homeless.

Furthermore, the cull only targets deer in the most overcrowded parks and natural areas, which is beneficial to the local vegetation and wildlife that exist in the ecosystems of more than 25 of Ann Arbor’s parks and natural areas, including parks near campus such as the Leslie Woods Nature Area and the Cedar Bend Nature Area.

The current plan provides a multifaceted approach to permanently keeping the deer population in check. Rather than starving the deer to death or risking an unsafe and unethical plan of forced sterilization, the Deer Management Plan has immediate effects while ensuring long-term population control. Though other options do exist, they are more costly, less effective and lack an immediate effect.

For example, the Indiana report says fencing “does not address the deer population problem” and “restricts the deer to problem area,” simply confining the deer to the area they’re currently in. There are severe ethical questions regarding forced sterilization and deer contraception. The Indiana report says “about half of all deer… die from capture related stress, injuries or from wandering extensive distances after release, resulting in increased highway mortality…” In addition to those problems, all other methods of deer control cost more money. Ann Arbor’s Deer Management Plan provides the cheapest, safest and most effective way of managing the deer population.

At the end of the day, the fact remains that the deer overpopulation problem will lead to eventual deer deaths. Whether or not we want these deaths to include destruction of natural ecosystems and landscapes along with transmission of disease and increased car-deer crashes is up to us. By following through with the Deer Management Plan, we will be able to safely and effectively remove the deer while preserving our natural areas and ecosystems. This plan has been thoroughly researched and many opinions have been accounted for. The Deer Management Plan as it is currently written is the best option for Ann Arbor. We need to follow through with the plan now and not look back.

 

Kit Maher:

Bambi lovers beware. USDA-approved sharpshooters have been hired to cull, or selectively slaughter, 100 deer within the first and second wards of Ann Arbor. The morality and practical necessity of the cull become questionable as more bullets are fired. Members of Friends of Ann Arbor Wildlife, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to animal welfare, brought the “Stop the Shoot” campaign to the city’s attention. The campaign aimed to achieve a one-year hold on the cull so the city could put more time into investigating non-lethal methods. They protested at a City Council meeting on Dec. 7, yet the city cull to address the growing population of white-tailed deer still proceeded.

Currently, there is not a big enough threat to the people of Ann Arbor to justify the killing of 100 innocent animals. Complaints filed about landscape and natural-habitat destruction can easily be alleviated by non-lethal measures, such as fencing and signs. Given that the current deer-human ratio in Ann Arbor is about one to 2,500, the threat of increased deer-vehicle collisions and the spread of Lyme disease seem premature.

One main reason for the cull was the threat of increased deer-vehicle collisions. Within the city’s report on the “Recommendations for Deer Management,” 63 percent of participants were concerned with deer-vehicle collisions.

Crash statistics from Michigan State Police’s Criminal Justice Information Center recorded 11,242 crashes in Washtenaw County in 2014. Among these crashes, 952 were deer-related, about 0.11 percent of the total. In 2005, 11,795 crashes were reported in Washtenaw County and 1,179 involved deer. Though deer-vehicle collisions happen, they are not the biggest threat to Ann Arbor drivers. Only six fatal deer-vehicle crashes within the entire state were reported in 2014, while 876 fatal crashes involving alcohol were reported.

Furthermore, according to the city report in which participants expressed their concern, only 8 percent of people answered yes to whether or not someone in their household was involved in a car accident with a deer within Ann Arbor. These statistics further prove that killing 100 deer in an effort to prevent deer-vehicle collisions is illogical and wasteful.

Deer-vehicle collisions aside, let’s not act like the cull is doing the city a huge favor by preventing Lyme disease. A common misconception is that deer are responsible for the spread of Lyme disease. According to an article in the New York Times, infected blacklegged ticks (more commonly known as deer ticks) are the root cause of Lyme disease, not deer. Felicia Keesing, biology professor at Bard College, and Richard Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, insist that reducing the amount of deer in an area will not reduce a person’s risk for contracting Lyme disease. Though they often feed on deer, these ticks also feed on skunks, raccoons and opossums. Feeding on deer does not infect ticks. However, they do become infected by feeding on white-footed mice, chipmunks and shrews.

As reported by the Center for Disease Control, Lyme disease affected 93 Michigan residents in 2014 out of 25,359 total cases throughout the United States. It’s also impossible to ignore that places in the United States that have little to no cases of Lyme disease are highly populated with deer, such as the Southeast and Midwest. For example, Georgia is home to approximately 1.2 million deer, yet only four confirmed cases of Lyme disease within the state were reported by the CDC in 2014.

Other concerns that have sparked the decision for a deer cull include damage to landscapes, garden plants and park ecosystems. Killing deer doesn’t seem like the answer to people’s frustration and fear, though. Many of the complaints came from people who were angry that their backyards were being destroyed and covered in feces. The unsettling fact is that the urbanization of Ann Arbor disturbed the natural habitat of deer in the first place.

The city’s report states, “Ann Arbor residents expressed serious concern about the destruction of the city’s natural areas by deer. Songbirds, oak trees, butterflies and many other species suffer or even disappear when deer overwhelm an urban area.”

The question we have yet to ask is: Aren’t deer a part of the natural area these concerned citizens are trying to protect? Take a second to notice the extreme irony of the entire situation. Citizens have expressed concern for the state of surrounding natural areas and “experience frustration, often severe, when their property and daily living arrangements are disrupted.” Yet, their homes invade the very land deer have roamed for even longer than we have.

This is not to say that nothing should be done to address the overpopulation of deer. However, plenty of non-lethal measures can and should have been taken before sharpshooters began the cull.

One of these non-lethal measures is fencing. Unfortunately, the city of Ann Arbor does not permit 10-foot fences, which the “Stop the Shoot” campaign deems the necessary height to keep deer away. Changing this city ordinance would solve many of the feelings of frustration passionate landscapers and gardeners are experiencing. Also, signs should absolutely be added to roads with high traffic of white-tailed deer.

People under the impression that killing is the only solution are simply misinformed. Killing 100 deer isn’t going to prevent deer-vehicle accidents, which there aren't very many of in the first place. Also, residents should put faith in the fact that Lyme disease isn’t going to spread through Ann Arbor with the stop of the cull. The only reasonable “threat” is destruction to people’s backyards. Rather than settling for the quick and violent fix, aggrieved citizens should put their efforts toward lifting the city ordinance against having 10-foot fences.  

The deer-feeding ban that was implemented alongside the cull should be tested by itself in order to give sufficient time to measure its effectiveness. According to the report, a ban would reduce deer-gathering in neighborhoods where homeowners are providing food. The perceived risks of deer overpopulation are being used as justification for the needless killing of animals. The truth is, the threats deer pose to the people of Ann Arbor are not significant enough to warrant a cull. Killing is not the answer to Ann Arbor’s problems. Ultimately, more time needs to be invested in the implementation of non-lethal measures before guns are raised.

 

Madeline Nowicki:

There are pragmatic arguments to be made both supporting and opposing the cull, outlined by Kit and Kevin. However, there are underlying questions surrounding the deer cull that are not often discussed in the context of practical debate. I will attempt to engage with some of these questions in the context of humane and inhumane solutions, while considering both approaches to the deer issue to be well-reasoned potential actions.  

The degradation of natural biodiversity is a pervasive problem at the intersection of most interactions humans have with the environment — from construction developments that raise the landscape to human travel patterns, which can often cause invasive species to emerge. The human-caused problem of deer overpopulation has been no exception to this rule; we have induced the degradation of local biodiversity in our ecosystems because we have created this problem with the deer.

Biodiversity is important because it composes the rich resources humans and other animals require to live. It also plays a vital role in countering the negative effects of pollution, climate change and other anthropogenic environmental quandaries. When biodiversity is lost, invasive species can take over, permanently changing the econsystem and edging out many native species. Preserving the biodiversity remaining on Earth and restoring as much as we can of our own destruction seems to be a noble goal. Is this our responsibility, as we were the destroyers ourselves? If we do not have the integrity to correct our own actions, no one will act, and our problems in this area will simply be exacerbated.

So we are left with an argument that deer should be culled in order to preserve the ecosystems to as close to natural states as possible. This argument feels insufficient — killing off wildlife in order to protect wildlife? How does this assuage the uncomfortable fact that we will be destroying nature in either situation? The argument becomes one debating which actions will have the greatest net positive effect. Maybe by weighing biological evidence in all categories, from local overcrowded flora to local overpopulated deer, it could be possible to come to a logical yet still compassionate solution and proceed with the scheduled cull.

Another approach is that the deer cull is not a compassionate response, as it is essentially murder. There is merit to this argument as well, particularly as residents may view themselves as complicit to this killing via their tax dollars if they do not voice their objections. If we presume that culling the proposed 100 deer is akin to murdering the animals, the reasons behind their deaths are called into question.

Despite flyover evidence saying dense deer populations can lead to an illness-affecting deer called Chronic Wasting Disease and the ecological evidence I discussed previously, the city has framed the issue in the context of a public nuisance, as evidenced by public complaints. The city report cites public complaints above many other reasons as a leading motivation for the cull. It seems immature and insensitive to solve a public inconvenience by simply killing off the inconvenience. Surely we would be capable of instituting a series of small policy changes that avoid such an intense response.

The report proposed implementation of smarter fencing, a deer-feeding ban, and planting deer-resistant plants in order to alleviate the effects of overpopulation. The report is framed in such a way that suggests the cull’s main goal is to deal with an annoyance, not to preserve environmental integrity — not to compassionately regulate a population that could be subjected to suffering if left unchecked. The cull is rash. It’s clear why so many are opposed to the actions when they are framed in such a poor way. 

From a conservationist perspective, the cull seems beneficial but also quite contradictory. From the perspective that the cull is murder, the reasoning preached by the city seems insufficient. Coupling these ideas with the facts that culls in other cities have had mixed success, and that Ann Arbor has yet to institute policy changes such as changed fencing laws to remove deer from human spaces in other ways, the cull overall remains a muddled and controversial policy.

Ultimately, culls are a short-term solution to the generational problem among deer of repopulation. There needs to be a mixture of policies enacted to ensure that the goals of the cull are accomplished, the problems with which we are faced are addressed and our ethics align with our actions. 

Kevin Sweitzer can be reached at ksweitz@umich.edu, Kit Maher can be reached at kitmaher@umich.edu and Madeline Nowicki can be reached at nowickim@umich.edu.