Two-year push for deer cull reveals city divide
On the evening of January 4, sharpshooters contracted by the city of Ann Arbor from the U.S. Department of Agriculture were scheduled to begin a 3-month campaign to remove 100 deer from the city — a cull — in the face of concerns over a outgrowth in deer population.
During the day, the city streets were largely quiet — the New Year had been only three days before and two days still remained in the University of Michigan's Winter Break.
Nonetheless, by the evening a crowd of about 100 had gathered outside in front of the Washtenaw County Administration Building to protest the cull, one in what would become a series of ongoing demonstrations. At 7 p.m., they all piled into the building as City Council’s weekly meeting commenced.
“What do we want? Stop the shoot!” they chanted, brandishing signs with similar slogans, their shouts resonating through the adjacent hallways of the building. “When do we want it? Now!”
Each speaker at the podium during public commentary was more emotional than the last, with many loudly condemning the city for undertaking the cull and council members for supporting it in a 8-1 vote.
“I see you don’t care much about facts, or public safety,” Ann Arbor resident Sabra Sanzotta, head of protest group Save the Deer, said. “Our council has been bought and sold — cheaply.”
One woman kept loudly interrupting the meeting until Mayor Christopher Taylor called the room back to order.
The start of the cull — and the corresponding outpouring of anger that night — was the culmination of years of research and advocacy, as it became clear that Ann Arbor faces both a growing deer population and plenty of opinions on what to do about it, ultimately leading to bitter local politicking and accusations of foul play over the past few months.
There are no reliable figures held by the city or county for exactly how many deer are in Ann Arbor, or how quickly the herd has been growing. However, there are proxies for it. In 2004, there were 31 deer-car collisions in Ann Arbor, according to data obtained from the Michigan Department of Transportation. In 2015, that number nearly tripled to 88. In the city’s 2015 deer management report, an analysis by local activists estimated the city’s herd size to be between about 1,100 and 1,800.
Ann Arbor’s ecosystem is ideal for an expansion in deer population, according to Christopher Dick, associate professor of ecology at the University, who has spoken in favor of the cull. He said this growth would ultimately be destructive to the environment.
“Deer have definitely increased in Ann Arbor from what they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Dick said. “Without any kind of major predator, these deer populations are going to explode just because of their fertility.”
Dick referred to two previous studies conducted at the University’s George Reserve — of which he is director — where a herd of six deer in 1928 grew to 162 by 1933, and a herd of 10 deer in 1975 grew to 212 by 1980.
“At some point they’re going to become overwhelming, there’s going to be so many traffic accidents, there’s going to be so much ecological damage,” Dick said, adding that large deer populations also increase the risk of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease.
By 2013 and early 2014, a more visible number of Ann Arbor residents began raising concerns to both city and county leaders, and the overpopulation of deer began to be formally addressed by Council.
A number of these concerned residents formed the local association Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance by early 2014. Referred to as “WC4EB”, it sought to bring attention to the deer issue.
These actions did not go unnoticed by local animal rights groups, who were opposed to the possibility of the cull on ethical grounds. The Humane Society of Huron Valley — headed by Tanya Hilgendorf — became one of the most prominent of those voices on the issue.
“As a community, we embrace nonviolent conflict resolution and want to do everything in our power to avoid the horrific gun violence we have seen elsewhere,” Hilgendorf wrote in an e-mail interview. “Those same values should be applied to our conflicts with animals.”
Cull opponents — including HSHV — have also questioned whether deer were indeed overpopulated in the city, advocating for non-lethal methods of deer control to be explored.
However, advocates like Prof. Dick have said over past months that they think many of the cull opponents’ positions are based on scientific misinformation.
“There’s a lot of actual science that they refer to, but it’s told in a misleading way,” Dick said, adding that studies have shown that non-lethal methods of deer management — such as immunocontraception — are ineffective.
Road to a cull
On August 17, 2015, City Council chose to follow the lethal route to control the deer population, approving a 1700-page plan put forth by city staff that would cull 100 deer each winter for the next four years in city parks. Only Mayor Chris Taylor voted against the resolution, citing the large number of constituents who were opposed.
“I fully empathize and appreciate the concerns with the deer-human interaction,” Taylor said in the meeting. “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.”
A series of surveys and public meetings conducted by the city between November 2014 and May 2015 suggested a majority of residents favored a cull, though cull opponents have since contended that the surveys were conducted in a disingenuous manner to create an artificial affirmation for a cull.
Hilgendorf wrote that inadequate public notice was given for public meetings on deer management, and the online survey contained leading questions “claiming culling was the only effective way of managing the problem.”
She noted that even with the allegations of bias, 43 percent of respondents still voiced opposition.
“So many people knew nothing about the issue until after (City Council) voted to cull,” Hilgendorf wrote, adding that the city typically advertises such meetings with mailed postcards. “No one received a postcard inviting them to the public meeting on deer management.”
Some cull opponents have also claimed WC4EB — whose advocacy efforts included extensive correspondence with city, county and state-level officials — were given undue influence with the council at the expense of groups opposed to the cull.
Hilgendorf wrote in an interview that though the city interviewed her for an hour in October 2014, HSHV played no role in the decision-making process, even though the city website listed them as a partner. Hilgendorf eventually requested HSHV be de-listed as a partner, citing that she didn’t feel HSHV’s position was being given any weight, and therefore the title “had no meaning.”
She also charged that WC4EB had peddled misinformation on the issue, and spoke to Council in private
“I wouldn’t say people were shut out of the official public input process,” Hilgendorf wrote, acknowledging HSHV took part in public forums. “I would say they were shut out of the backroom conversations that led to a decision to cull — largely before the public engagement process even began.”
Sanzotta cited WC4EB email exchanges beginning in August 2014, which she obtained through FOIA, to claim pro-cull groups had greatly influenced the council’s decision long before the rest of the public could weigh in.
When presented with these accusations, cull supporters — including WC4EB member Bernie Banet — dismissed the charges as ridiculous.
“All groups were communicating with council, as we have a constitutional right to do. The notion that there were some improper connections, or we had some magical power other than the information we provided is kind of laughable,” Banet said. “We did this in the public eye, and there was ample opportunity for the animal rights groups to give input. The red-shirted army of (cull) opponents was at each meeting.”
Banet also said numerous city officials have ties to many of the animal rights groups opposed to the cull that are longer-standing and more substantive than their ties to WC4EB, also charging that cull opponents were the ones spreading misinformation.
“What they’ve tried to do to document this is to falsify the record,” Banet said, saying that he and other WC4EB members have been intentionally misquoted in a pamphlet compiled by Sanzotta, and other cull opponents continue to spread scientific misinformation.
City Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) also dismissed the accusations, saying the council listened to all its constituents, primarily acted on the city staff’s recommendations and actually received more e-mail traffic from cull opponents.
“It falls on my charge to represent the people of my ward, and it happens that a couple of (WC4EB members) are from my ward,” Westphal said. “They certainly worked very hard, as did the anti-cull people, in gathering information, and I think we were informed by both sides.”
Though the council approved the deer management plan in August, several roadblocks and formalities remained before the cull could begin. Animal rights groups rallied from across Michigan to oppose the cull, including HSHV, the Michigan Political Action Committee for Animals and the local citizens’ group Save the Deer.
MiPACA and Save the Deer openly backed councilmember Jane Lumm’s (I-Ward 2) challenger in the November election, Sally Petersen, due to Lumm’s support for the cull. HSHV started a “Stop the Shoot” campaign. Anti-cull websites and e-mail newsletters emerged, and yard signs with the “Stop the Shoot” slogan appeared across the city.
The political nature of the cull opponents’ new tactics drew criticism from some of the public.
In an October 2015 open letter, Thomas Weider, local attorney and longtime HSHV contributor, criticized the organization for the lengths it was going to oppose a measure that was already approved. He also suggested that by taking a stance in an election, HSHV was violating its tax-exempt status.
“Council voted 8-1 (with the two absent members also supportive) to proceed with the cull,” Weider wrote. “The issue has been decided, whether HSHV likes it or not. Please stop wasting my donation dollars.”
On Nov. 3, 2015, Lumm defeated Petersen with 64 percent of the vote and the highest voter turnout among the wards in this year’s City Council elections.
Two days later, after a marathon public hearing, all of the council but Taylor approved resolutions to temporarily allow the discharge of firearms on public land and contract USDA sharpshooters for $35,000 for the cull. A recall petition against councilmember Westphal in December and a January lawsuit — both protesting the cull — were swiftly struck down.
The cull would proceed as planned, despite the objections.
A question of values
By the conclusion of the cull’s first 3-month iteration on March 1, only 63 deer had been killed, their meat distributed to local homeless shelters. An aerial survey conducted in the final week suggested the city’s deer population had still grown despite the cull.
Leading WC4EB member Maurita Holland said she was pleased by the first cull results, adding that the successful implementation would allay safety concerns from other residents. WC4EB’s current goals, she said, are now public education on the issue and the development of a comprehensive countywide deer management plan.
“We got through this first year, nobody died, no pets got hurt, so in many ways that was probably a success” Holland said.
The city’s 2015 deer management plan described a “divergence in values” in the city’s population as a significant obstacle to overcome. Among the local residents interviewed, fundamental differences in how they viewed humans’ role in nature were evident.
Though the ongoing protests about the cull have subsided since earlier this month, that divide clearly remains.
“One of the reasons we came to Ann Arbor was to enjoy the park systems, the natural habitat, the little bit of nature we were missing in downtown Detroit," Sanzotta said. "As soon as we got here, the next thing we knew was that they were going to slaughter two-thirds of the deer they counted.”
Sanzotta added she intends to continue protesting the cull, and her group has recently filed a new lawsuit against the State of Michigan to attempt to halt it.
In contrast, local landscaper Christopher Graham noted that the original Native Americans inhabitants of Ann Arbor would hunt deer and maintain ecological balance, and said today’s cull is in the same spirit.
“If the Indians thought they shouldn’t kill deer, the deer would’ve eaten them out of house and home,” Graham said. “And if we don’t control the (deer) population one way or another, and the most cost-effective way to that is killing them, things will get out of hand.”