Deer and the Numbers Explosion

Posted February 24, 2015 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability


This is not from Ann Arbor and is not one of the photos in the story cited.

In the most recent article about Ann Arbor’s deer problem, the Ann Arbor News presented a number of photographs from an anonymous contributor of deer near her residence, apparently in a public natural area.  As Tanya Hilgendorf of the Humane Society of Huron Valley (who passed along the photos) said of the person who took the photos, “She has watched many families of deer grow over the years, has come to know their individual personalities and witness their bonds with each other.”  The photos show quite a number of fawns, two in some pictures.

Now, the little fawn with his spotted coat is probably one of the most beloved images in our culture.  Is it because we all saw the movie Bambi when we were between the ages of 6 and 10?  Perhaps it is the same sentimental rush that comes with seeing the juveniles of any mammalian species, whether it is kittens, puppies, or fawns.  But actually, if you care about the forests of the North American continent, or about our own natural areas and the other wild things that live there, or even about your own garden, this image should make you run to hide under the bed in terror.

It’s all in the numbers

It is possible to find deer management plans (intended to limit deer populations) described from most states in North America. The reason is that throughout the 20th century, deer (of several different species) have increased hugely in numbers.  This is because of their tremendous reproductive capacity.

Predator-prey population dynamics from Hoppensteadt. Scholarpedia

Predator-prey population dynamics from Hoppensteadt, Scholarpedia

Deer have evolved to be a prey species.  The dynamics of the predator-prey relationship are well understood.  As this treatise states, “Species compete, evolve and disperse simply for the purpose of seeking resources to sustain their struggle for their very existence. ” The figure shown here uses a fox and rabbit as examples, but numerous studies have shown that many biological interactions are based on the same mathematics.  Note the steep rise of the prey species (rapid reproduction).  As the predator population increases with this availability of food, the population of the prey drops precipitously.  After the corresponding drop in numbers of predators, the reproductive capacity of the prey once again kicks in to bring the population back up. The web of life consists of many such interactions in a dynamic balance. (Herbivory – the predation of plants by animals – has also been shown to follow this pattern.  When herbivores such as deer exhaust the vegetation available to them, this is known as “exceeding the carrying capacity” and also leads to a population collapse.)

Deer (in all this discussion, we are referencing the white-tail deer, though there are other species) have only one reproductive cycle per year.  A doe can have two fawns at one birth, though triplets have been reported.  Poorly fed does may have fewer.  The female fawn will bear in the succeeding year, but the first doe, her mother, is also bearing again.  This means that the population growth is not merely replacement, but additive.

A single doe and her offspring over 5 years.  Males are not shown.

A single doe and her female offspring over 5 years. Males are not shown.

The figure above shows that a single doe can produce a population of 32 females in 5 years.  (Multiply by 2 to include males – a total of 64 deer from one fertile doe!)  The solid line points to the maternal doe; dotted lines show the births from the new does in each generation.


1.The does are well fed and can support the birth of two fawns yearly.

2. Each birth produces one male and one female.

3. There are no deaths.

Deer population model 300x420Here is the same model, shown graphically.  Again, note that this is does only. If males (bucks) are born at the same rate, the numbers will be doubled, but they do not change the rate of increase.  As shown, there are 32 does at 5 years.  By 10 years, if no change in the assumptions, 1,000!  At this point, the original doe and some of her daughters and grand-daughters may have died or stopped reproducing, but their contributions are no longer significant.

At this point, the predator-prey model would predict that the wolf population will now have increased to exploit this food supply.  Oh, oops.  No wolves.

Of course, it is unlikely that deer populations in most Michigan locations, even in the protected environs of Ann Arbor, quite fit those assumptions. Various estimates are given on the life span of deer.  A maximum lifespan has been reported to be 20 years, but estimates for most situations are for 6-10 years.  Averages are lower where hunting occurs, especially for bucks. Some number of deer are killed by vehicles, there is some winterkill, and there have been a couple of instances of disease that reduced herds.  In addition, there are coyotes who probably don’t take down mature deer but are known to take fawns. The Rochester Hills staffer who spoke at the Ann Arbor February 5 meeting said that coyotes were apparently affecting deer populations there, but offered no details.

Still, it is obvious that this terrific reproductive potential is a major factor in the impact of deer on our environment.

History of deer in North America

History of white-tailed deer in North America, from U. Missouri Extension publication

History of white-tailed deer in North America, from U. Missouri Extension publication

In the early part of the 20th century, there was a deer deficit.  Deer have historically been a key factor in the abundance that this continent had to offer both to its earlier inhabitants (North American Indians) and to European settlers.  As an account from Minnesota tells it, both the delicious meat (used in making jerky) and the skins were important in the early days, and survival by humans in wild territory was made possible by taking deer.  The history of deer populations in Michigan and reaction to them is similar to other locations.  Deer increased as logging made habitat more favorable for them.  (Deer do best in clearings where there are seedlings, young trees and “forbs”, or herbaceous plants.)  They became seen as an inexhaustible resource and were hunted for export to other states as well as for food locally. Legislation to prohibit market hunting was finally passed in 1895.  Hunting bag limits were imposed.  Nevertheless, the deer population was dangerously low – it was estimated that only 45,000 deer remained in Michigan in 1914.  Further hunting restrictions, including a “buck law” (only bucks could be taken), allowed the herds to recover. At the same time, settlement and agriculture had converted much of the landscape, and wolves were being exterminated over the North American continent.  After all, they were eating our deer.  The DNR also began to create habitat protection for deer.  By the 1940s, there were 1.5 million deer and some of them were starving.

Data from Hickie, 1937, as illustrated by Leopold, 1943.  George Reserve (UM)

Data from Hickie, 1937, as illustrated by Leopold, 1943. George Reserve (UM)

The tendency of deer to increase their numbers well beyond the carrying capacity of their environment is termed an “irruption”.  This early (1943) paper (large pdf) by Aldo Leopold, one of the fathers of environmental conservation, lays out the story.  A reserve owned by the University of Michigan was stocked with 4 does and 2 bucks. Within 6 years, there were 160 deer, and they had exceeded the food supply in a 1200 acre reserve. Overbrowsing was observed, so the herd was “shot down” to 75, and later to 50, deer.  Leopold declared that the herd was now in equilibrium with its range – and that it was being held at that level by additional shooting.  Note that the graph also shows a  hypothetical loss of carrying capacity if the herd had been allowed to continue expanding, and a likely drop in deer population through starvation.

An even more famous example of a deer irruption was also detailed by Leopold.  The Kaibab plateau, where deer were protected from hunting and from predators, suffered a population collapse after deer consumed all available food.  This observation, common in ecology texts for decades, has recently been reaffirmed.

Washtenaw County as the ideal deer habitat

We probably don’t need to worry about deer starving to death very soon in Washtenaw County (though it is possible if current population trends continue).  We have constructed the ideal deer habitat. Not only has urban sprawl created thousands of semirural estates with landscaping, we have lush agricultural areas and lots of parks and natural areas, most restricted from hunting.  Here is what the DNR’s analysis says about our county (the entire county is a Deer Management Unit):

The landscape supports a patchwork of cover types, with agriculture, forest, and grass/shrubland being most dominant. Urban development is concentrated in the City of Ann Arbor; however this DMU supports other largely developed areas and suburban and ex-urban communities; this is a populous county and development is ubiquitous throughout the DMU. …

Although much of the private lands toward the south central parts of the DMU are in agriculture, private and public lands in the area support cover habitat for deer (e.g., woodlots, shrub/brush, and wetland). Deer throughout the Washtenaw DMU have ample access to food, water, and cover and can meet all life requisites in every portion of the DMU. However, in many cases, they may be meeting these requirements in areas closed to hunting. (emphasis added)

Cultural carrying capacity is exceeded long before adequate food is exhausted. (Missouri Extension graph)

Cultural carrying capacity is exceeded long before adequate food is exhausted. (U. Missouri Extension graph)

Here’s the problem: through our own intervention to create a beautiful and lush living space, we have created a refuge for deer, with little hunting, no wolves, and tasty food, well tended.  Being deer, they have responded with explosive growth in our living space.  (Anecdotally, the areas west of us where hunting is allowed are not overpopulated.)

So while it may take a while yet before our local deer exceed their food supply (biological carrying capacity), they will have long since exhausted our patience.  The concept of “cultural carrying capacity” expresses the total impact of deer-vehicle collisions, agricultural losses, landscape damage, and now even concern over disease-carrying deer ticks.

I’d say that Ann Arbor’s deer have reached that level already.

Note: A list of posts on this subject and some other useful resources on deer management in Michigan are found on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?.




Deer and the Community Conversation

Posted February 16, 2015 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

The sign-off slide from the city presentation

The sign-off slide from the city presentation

The City of Ann Arbor Deer Management Project continued with a second public meeting on February 5, 2015.   The slide presentation from the City’s consultant and a video of the meeting are now available on the City’s webpage.

The agenda consisted of four parts:

  • An introduction by Sumedh Bahl, Community Services Administrator, and Charlie Fleetham, the City’s consultant.  The survey was briefly summarized as to a few high points, though no real analysis or comprehensive summary was offered.
  • Important announcements: that there would be an aerial assessment of the deer population; and that the date of the report would be moved up to late March.  Also, that the staff and consultant would not make any recommendations, but would offer alternatives.
  • A scripted interview with Lance DeVoe, the Rochester Hills staffer who is in charge of their “non-lethal” deer management program.
  • A presentation by Christopher Graham, an Ann Arbor landscape architect who has long experience with the damage deer do to landscapes and natural areas.  He has long been a figure in Ann Arbor policy circles, and is a member of the City’s Environmental Commission.
  • A very long public comment session (half the line was still there when I left at 9:15).

Evidently the Humane Society Huron Valley Chapter was invited to speak on the idea of using contraception to inhibit the spread of deer, an idea vigorously promoted by the Humane Society US , but declined.

Rochester Hills, Michigan, has the highest deer-vehicle crash count in the SEMCOG area, but has chosen to use what is described as a “non-lethal” approach.  This mostly consists of a combination of driver education and signage, vegetation trimming and other means of reducing crashes, together with education about landscape alternatives.

Chris Graham spoke as a representative of the Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance.  He spoke movingly of the loss of gardens, local food production, and damage to the very web of life in our natural areas. The WC4EB presentation slides and text of the speech are included here as pdf files, but may also be viewed on the website.  Members of the WC4EB also distributed an informative flyer.

It was apparent that the Humane Society and associated groups like the Citizens for Safe Deer Management, who have now gotten themselves recognized as a “stakeholder”, had recruited sympathizers from all over SE Michigan to come and support the “nonlethal” viewpoint.  During the long public comment period, people from as far as St. Clair Shores spoke about the moral imperative to preserve the lives of deer.  A common theme was that Ann Arbor gardeners could avoid problems by choosing to plant the right plants.  One lady, who caused something of an audience twitter by identifying herself as from “Sky-o Township”, instructed us to use Irish Spring Soap, so very 2006.  (Some gardeners tell me that the deer eat Irish Spring Soap!)

Rochester Hills

The city of Rochester Hills in Oakland County has consistently had the highest number of deer-vehicle crashes in SE Michigan.  According to SEMCOG, it was the top community in DVC for 2011-2013, with 430 DVC in those three years.  (Scio Township is the second highest, with 355 DVC.)  Attempts to solve this problem have resolved as their “nonlethal” approach.

The interview with Lance DeVoe was informative.  DeVoe is a wildlife biologist who was first employed by Rochester Hills as an environmental educator, but he now spends 50% of his time on the deer management program.  He said that RH began counting deer by means of flyovers in 1999.  Many of the deer are found in the parkland on large tracts of land bordering the Clinton River.  But there began to be problems in neighborhoods.  In response, a sharpshooting program was launched, but was stopped about a month later because of protests.  They now have the “nonlethal” approach.

  • The city passed a feeding ban ordinance.
  • Education on fencing, plants rarely damaged by deer, and deer repellents
  • Attempt to minimize deer vehicle crashes by signage and vegetation management, together with driver education.
  • A Deer Management Advisory Committee oversees the program.
  • There is continued monitoring of the size of the deer herd.
  • The deer are experiencing lethal effects, if only from automobiles.  The policy requires property owners to be responsible for removing dead deer on their own property.

The deer herd has varied in the monitored areas and DeVoe stated that it was staying “about the same” though the figures do not support that.  The handout showed 217 total deer in 2011 (last year shown) and he showed an updated graph in which 300 deer were observed in 2014, which he termed “an anomaly”.  Since most does produce two fawns, deer generally double in population in about two years and one would expect an increase in a population with no lethal events.  But in 2008, deer in Oakland County were hit with Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) , which is transmitted by midges and most observed in warmer than usual years.  DeVoe stated that the environment along the river was favorable for the midges and a considerable number of dead deer had to be removed.  The figures from the Rochester Hills flyovers show that the number of deer in the assessment areas were reduced in 2009 (80) to less than half what they had been in 2008 (184) (presumably the survey was done in the early part of each year).  So it appears that the deer in Rochester Hills are increasing in population, from a low in 2009 to higher than expected in 2014.

Another revealing point made by DeVoe is the effect on Rochester Hills’ natural areas.  In 2005, the residents passed a millage to acquire and maintain a system called Green Space (it has its own Advisory Board).  Their biologist now concedes that oak seedlings are gone, there are only a few remnant areas of Trillium, and the understory is essentially gone.  He said that most of what remains is Japanese barberry.

Japanese barberry

Japanese barberry

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a known problem invasive in Northern forests.  The Michigan Natural Features Inventory has a discussion and control recommendations for this pest.  The irony is that it is often planted as a “deer resistant” landscape plant.  But the thorns that make it deer resistant also make it very unfriendly to wander through in search of the beauty of nature.

Just to add injury to insult, apparently this shrub provides the ideal conditions for the deer tick that carries Lyme disease.  It shelters both the mice that carry the disease and the adult ticks.

In conclusion, it is difficult to see that the Rochester Hills story makes this model attractive for Ann Arbor to emulate.

NOTE: Posts and other information on Ann Arbor’s deer problem are listed on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?

Oh, Deer – The Survey

Posted January 31, 2015 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability


The results of the City of Ann Arbor’s Deer Management Project survey and their implications.

Surveys are tricky. There is, literally, a whole science to surveys to make them meaningful and useful.  In designing a survey, one should consider very carefully how the information is to be used.

Is the expressed opinion of the public really going to be used to make a policy decision? (In essence, a referendum.)

Or is the intent only to take the public temperature so that one may gauge the likely outcry over a decision?

Or are you trying to collect real data on the experience of the public that can be used in further policy formulation?

Or – least defensible – is the survey designed as a “push poll”, to convince the public so that a particular policy outcome can be justified by a “public” desire?

A notorious example of this last usage was the Connecting William Street project of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.  This was designed from the start to keep the usual noisy mob out of the way. (See Section II, “A Flawed Public Process”, in this Library Green report.) In particular, it involved a survey which omitted a downtown park as one of the options for city-owned properties downtown, and downplayed the strong public comment in support of a park.

One reason that surveys should be used cautiously is that the public doesn’t enjoy being deceived, or used.  So it is a good idea ahead of time to know how you really intend to use the results.  Quite truthfully, there are many times when it is NOT a good idea to make a survey into a referendum.  If people think you are asking their opinion, only to dismiss it, they resent this mightily. And yet, public opinion may not point to the best policy outcome.  There are times when political leaders simply have to lead, and referendum results may not acknowledge all the constraints and nuances in a particular issue.

But a survey can be a good tool to assess public reaction, if well-designed and used cautiously.  A good example is the series of surveys conducted by a professional firm on behalf of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, gauging support for a new county-wide transit millage.  After a number of false starts (we documented this at length, see the Transportation Page), the last version of this plan, with a much reduced service area, was approved by the voters of the City of Ann Arbor, City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township.  The success of the millage vote was predicted by the last survey conducted; this enabled the AAATA Board to move ahead with confidence.  Here is the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s summary of those transit survey results.

What was the purpose of the City of Ann Arbor’s survey on deer management?  It was initiated without first providing much information about the problem.  Indeed, despite the report provided to the Council earlier by city staff, this survey seems to be designed in part to determine whether there is a perceived problem.  At times it appears to be constructed to inform the opinions of the public.  At other times, it seems to be a rather aimless fishing expedition.

The Deer Management Project Survey

The City used its survey tool called A2 Open City Hall. The Deer Management Project survey was closed on January 2, 2015. There were 27 questions in all (not numbered, though we’ll be referring to them by number).  A total of 537 responses were recorded.

The questions and summary of responses are no longer available for viewing and the outcome has not yet been posted.  However, if you took the survey, your own responses may still be viewed. See update below.

Like many online surveys, this has a flaw in that it is a self-selected survey sample.  A truly accurate survey of public opinion would be a randomized, carefully balanced sample incorporating suitable geographical and demographic ranges.  But, just like the public vote on a referendum, this counts only the people who care enough to show up.

Such a survey has a potential value in estimating the views of the public on this delicate and difficult subject.  But this survey has many deficiencies.

1. Structural flaws

Some of the questions should have been nested, where one skips questions that don’t apply.  For example, Question 7  asks,

Have your garden plants or landscape been damaged by deer?

Approximately half (51%) of the respondents answered “No.”  But then Questions 8-12 go on to ask about the effectiveness of fencing, repellents, noise-makers and other frightening devices, or use of deer-resistant plants in addressing deer damage.  Obviously half the respondents are not going to have direct experience and their opinions on whether various measures are effective can hardly be reliable.  For useful information, Q7 should have instructed the reader to skip Q 8-12 if the answer was “No”.  This is called use of “skip logic” in surveys and makes results much more meaningful.

2. Asking for expert opinions from non-experts

Questions 14-21 are prefaced by this comment:

Communities who have adopted deer management plans typically utilize a variety of measures to help minimize conflicts with deer and/or to reduce their population.

Support for several of these methods (education about deer-resistant plants, marking deer crossings, managing roadside vegetation, prohibiting supplemental feeding) is queried in a straightforward way. But what is not clear is whether these “non-lethal” methods are to be adopted in exclusion of any lethal method of limiting deer population.  Question 18 does indeed ask about approval of a lethal method, such as use of sharpshooters.  None of these questions asks about effectiveness of the one method being discussed.

Then in Q 19-21 the survey asks for expert opinion:

If the following method were allowed by the DNR, based on your knowledge, do you feel *** would be the most effective non-lethal method in resolving the perceived deer nuisance issues in Ann Arbor?

The three non-lethal methods named are deer contraceptives, trapping and sterilizing deer, and trapping and relocating deer.  There are two very odd things about these questions.

(1)These three approaches were specifically disallowed by the August report from the City Administrator, and it is generally understood that none of them are approved by MDNR at this time.

(2) Even if they were approved methods, how would Ann Arbor residents without expert knowledge be expected to have an opinion on their effectiveness? (Results indicated that most rejected the trapping and relocating option, with 72% either saying “Least effective” or “Don’t know”; for the other two options, about 35% were positively impressed, answering “Most effective” or “Moderately effective”, and 65% negative or didn’t know.)

So what was the purpose of including these questions?  Was it to plant a suggestion in the minds of the public that these might be feasible approaches?

3. Selective omission or emphasis

At the December 10 meeting, the consultant (Charlie Fleetham) showed an inclination to emphasize certain results and also announced the intention to eliminate use of the data gathered for some other questions. For the question,

In general, do you believe deer are a more valued species than other urban mammals (coyote, rabbit, squirrel, skunk, woodchuck, etc.)

he reviewed the results by emphasizing those who had answered “Yes” (at that time, 27.2%) while omitting the point that a heavy majority had said “No”.  (Final results were 139 (26%) Yes and 398 (74%) No.)  There was an audible outcry from the audience, at which point Fleetham looked out and stated rather belligerently, “Well, I think that’s significant.”  In fact, it is rather significant.  It shows that a very small minority of Ann Arbor respondents were willing to give deer a special status among all the diversity of wildlife.  But his emphasis seemed designed to make a different point.

Meanwhile, the last three questions on the survey (which were another example of asking the public for an expert opinion) were phrased in this way:

Research concludes that lethal removal measures are most effective for managing a deer population. Please indicate your level of support for *** within the city.

The three choices were for firearm hunting, bow hunting (both as part of the regular hunting season) or sharpshooters.  (No information has been given as to how such programs would be implemented.)

Image from the A2 Open City Hall survey on December 27, 2014

Image from the A2 Open City Hall survey on December 27, 2014

Apparently the local Humane Society objected to this language.  (Tanya Hilgendorf, its director, is quoted at length by the Ann Arbor News in objecting to the questions.)  It has now been stated that these questions will not be considered in the analysis of the survey.  Now, it is agreed that this was unfortunately worded.  But then, it is on a par with many of the other poorly done sections of the survey.  Will the City simply discard data because of political points brought up by one side of the question?

Useful information

In spite of its many flaws, the survey did yield some useful information.

1. Support for lethal methods

As we stated previously, a major reason for public engagement on this issue is that the use of lethal methods to manage the deer population hits on some real sensitivities.  We do have some answers on this question from the survey.  In addition to the three contested questions at the end, there was a relatively uninflected question earlier, which will presumably be retained:

Please indicate your level of support for using lethal methods such as hunting or sharpshooting to reduce the deer population

Like many questions on the survey, respondents were asked to indicate “strong support”, “moderate support”, or “do not support”.  We have combined the two figures for strong and moderate support in this analysis, since they both indicate an affirmation for the method mentioned.  (All percentages are based on 537, the total number of responses at the end of the survey.)  This table shows results from both the early general question about lethal methods and the specific questions about method.

lethalNote that when asked in general about use of lethal methods, a majority indicated support.  However, there was some uncertainty about specific methods, with “firearm hunting” receiving  little support.  Also to note here is the use of the words “within city”.  Since no details of the method are given, this could be imagined as having hunters generally roaming the neighborhoods, which of course will never happen.  This is really a very strong support for lethal methods, given the lack of specific information.

2. Nature of the concern

Another useful question was

Which of the following concerns do you have about deer in the City of Ann Arbor?

Note that the answers are not mutually exclusive in this case – this was a “check all that apply” question.  A little over 60% of respondents did have some concern.  Here are the answers, ranked.


Clearly the danger of deer vehicle crashes was the largest concern, though very few reported that they or their family members had experienced such a crash (near misses were not counted).  But what is notable here is that a substantial minority reported concern about both garden plants and native vegetation.  A similar percentage were also concerned about the transmission of Lyme disease and other deer tick-borne diseases.  It is interesting that the stated concern about decline in the health of the deer themselves was at nearly the same level.

Where do we go from here?

The survey, flawed as it is, does indicate that there is a perceived problem with the burgeoning deer population in Ann Arbor.  It may be possible to obtain slightly more information if the analysis includes techniques such as comparing an individual respondent’s answers on certain questions.  For example, how does the belief that deer are more worthy than other wildlife influence answers on some other questions?  As of January 31, 2015, no summary analysis has been posted.

The Deer Management Project page on the Ann Arbor city website states that a report will be presented to Council on March 2, 2015.  There are very few indications of what information is being gathered in the interim.  Another public meeting is scheduled for February 5, 2015, 7 p.m. at Slauson Middle School, 1019 W. Washington.  According to the City press release, a review of the survey results will be presented at that time.

Note: Posts on this subject and other resources are listed on our page, What do We Do About the Deer.

UPDATE: The survey summary is available on A2 Open City Hall. Go to Closed Topics and choose the deer project.  Choose the Feedback tab.

open city hall tab

Click on the Download PDF hyperlink.  You will have to supply your email address and a pdf will be sent to you in time.  The CSV download is not useful – it is a record of all responses, not summarized.

















Oh, Deer – Managing the Public

Posted December 17, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

In our previous post, we suggested that a rational planning approach for the deer management project had been abandoned in the course of the public engagement process*.

A hunter in a tree stand.  He'll use carefully delivered shots to take out a deer.

A hunter in a tree stand. He’ll use carefully delivered shots to take out a deer.

Why is public engagement so crucial in this particular case, though always important in any governmental plan?  Because the issue of deer and how to cope with them is highly charged emotionally, as we have noted.  The point is that urban residents who seldom encounter deer have some difficulty in contemplating the only (sorry, but true) means of population control, namely killing some of them. This is called “culling”.  Typically the carcass is immediately transported to a processing facility and made into steaks, chops, summer sausage, and a variety of other meat cuts.  Often they are donated to food pantries. But asking an urban population to adopt a culling program requires information and careful inquiries about acceptability of this method.

The city’s consultant, Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations, proposed the “public engagement strategy” as his major work product. There have been three stages thus far.  The first was out of view of the general public, consisting of one-on-one meetings with designated stakeholders.  The second was a survey made available on the city’s A2 Open City Hall site.  The third was a public meeting held on December 10.  The slide presentation by Fleetham and a video of the meeting are viewable on the city’s Deer Management Project webpage.  The Ann Arbor News published a brief account of the meeting.

The Stakeholders

The term “stakeholders” is becoming a buzz word in governmental circles, meaning the “people who have some investment in this issue”.  In this case, the starting point was “partners”; other governmental agencies who might assist or cooperate.  As the May 2014 Council resolution on the deer problem stated, city staff was asked to

“partner with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department and Commission, the University of Michigan, the Humane Society of Huron Valley and other interested parties to develop information and strategies needed for deer management, including conducting deer counts; researching damage caused by deer to wildlife, native vegetation, and forest regeneration; and obtaining assistance from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division”.

(Note that Washtenaw County took a lead on the issue with a Working Session on February 20, 2014, and discussion at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting before that. Subsequently, the County contracted with a naturalist to study the effects of deer on native vegetation.)

The slide from the presentation listing "stakeholders".

The slide from the presentation listing “stakeholders”.

The implication of “partners” is that a cooperative arrangement is formed in which expertise and tools from various sectors is applied to address a problem.  But in the hands of our consultant, these became “stakeholders” who were merely asked for some opinions. The names of the individuals who supplied these opinions are not given, though we can guess in most cases.  This might be important. Most are institutional entities, and the individuals who represented them may or may not be offering personal opinions, expert knowledge-based opinion, or merely be representing the interest of the institution. We are not given their actual responses or even very much about the actual questions asked. (The single slide and limited description of their comments from the December 10 presentation is shown below.  We recorded the presentation to verify quotes.)

  • Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance is evidently the stand-in for those who would like the city to address the problem (their website has many reasons and much information). This was evidently a group interview. But this small group of citizens is not the entire population who are affected.
  • The Humane Society of Huron Valley contracts with Washtenaw County for a variety of animal control services, including humane wildlife removal (deer are not one of the species included).  Its President and CEO, Tanya Hilgendorf, is one of the most vocal opponents of lethal approaches.
  • The Ann Arbor Police Chief is John Seto.  He would be able to comment on vehicle-deer crashes.  Presumably those were excluded from the reported comment that there are “no significant public safety issues”.  Apparently our police chief is cognizant that deer limit their home invasion and theft to gardens and have not yet committed any homicides.
  • The Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Service Manager, Colin Smith, is presumably responsible for the comment, “There are a few complaints from park users.”  (Note the lack of information about actual damage to park vegetation.)
  • The Natural Area Preservation Program Manager, Dave Borneman, seems to have little to say here, though he presumably supplied a graph showing songbird counts (not shown here).
  • MDNR (the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) was presumably represented by Kristin Bissell, the wildlife biologist for our area.  She was also interviewed as part of the program.
  • The Washtenaw County Parks Director, Robert Tetens, does not appear to have contributed much to the published remarks.  Washtenaw County has been addressing the issue of deer in its own natural areas, but I would guess that Ann Arbor City would not be considered within their jurisdiction, so circumspection would be called for.
  • The University of Michigan spokesperson is not identified.  The UM is a large campus with many different units who could be differentially affected. If the Community Relations Director, Jim Kosteva, was interviewed, he likely demurred from having much of an opinion, since he would not have an institutional response at hand.

The results from these interviews are summarized in one slide, which is structured to indicate that opinions fall on a wide spectrum.  As Fleetham commented, “You can see the same wide dispersion, what we call in the business a polarity.”

This single slide from the December 10 presentation summarizes the stakeholder interviews.


All the expert time that was presumably invested in the interviews has resulted in what amounts to a quick survey of opinion.  Without identifying the particular observations of each person’s position, the only real takeaway is that there are many different responses.  The nuances and underlying special information that might have informed these responses are not indicated.  Also,  we don’t know how many interviewees are not represented here at all, or whether one or more had a disproportionate voice. Certainly, we have come a long way from “partnerships”.

The presentation of these points on a spectrum is rather strained.  Many fragments don’t necessarily belong on a spectrum, depending on their contexts.  “We are investing to protect our plants” is shown as a middle of the spectrum, yet it would be perfectly consistent with “we have an acute problem”.  “Adopt latest non-lethal biological techniques” should be no different in spectrum location from all the other non-lethal techniques mentioned – so most of that spectrum suggests non-lethal techniques in comparison to culling.  And “ban feeding”, together with “improve road safety” and “educate public…” would all be logical additions to complement a culling program, rather than representing a middle ground.  There appears to be an effort to make the point that there are a wide variety of responses (opinions), presumably all of equal weight.  One would instead have liked to see an evaluation of different approaches.

In addition to the Stakeholder interviews, the presentation also featured a scripted interview with the MDNR wildlife biologist and a review of survey results.  (The edited survey is available on A2 Open City Hall until January 2.)

In future posts, we’ll review the survey and some other information presented on December 10.

NOTE: Posts on this subject are now listed on our page, What Do We Do about the Deer?, along with some useful resources.

ADDENDUM: As our recent post on the city survey indicates, the greatest concern (regarding deer) among city residents is the incidence of deer-vehicle crashes.  The most recent data available via state agencies is for 2013.  According to a SEMCOG source, the 2014 data will not be available until April 2015.

One of the apparent efforts to downplay the problem at the December 10 public meeting was the use of deer-vehicle statistics.  Partial year information was presented in a misleading way.

The graph shown at the December 10 meeting. The Ann Arbor crash data are through November 4, 2014.

The graph shown at the December 10 meeting. The Ann Arbor crash data are through November 4, 2014.

Note that the slope of both lines indicates an increase in deer-vehicle crashes through 2013.  But the additional information about Ann Arbor seems to indicate a decline in crashes.  Yet, it is well known that most deer-vehicle crashes occur in November and December (the mating season, and the hunting season).  It was very poor use of data to extend the blue line using a partial year’s data and thus to imply that the problem is diminished.

Here is the deer crash information given in the report from the City Administrator in August.

Data from the City Administrator's report, August 2014. Data for 2014 are as of July, 2014.

Data from the City Administrator’s report, August 2014.

In the graph shown at the December 10 meeting, it appears that about 22 crashes involving deer had already been recorded as of November 4.  That exceeds the number for the entire year in 2012.  If the increases are proportionate, we are likely to see totals of 38 to 40 deer-vehicle crashes for Ann Arbor in 2014.

UPDATE: A report posted by Dave Askins on LocalWiki indicates about 52 deer-vehicle crashes for 2014 in Ann Arbor. Note that the 2014 data is still preliminary.

* A little joke here: rational planning is contrasted to Project Innovations’ trademarked “Unrational Leadership”. From the proposal:

From the proposal. Click for bigger image.


Oh, Deer – Will Ann Arbor Find a Solution?

Posted December 15, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

The air seems to have gone out of Ann Arbor’s effort to find a solution to the deer problem.  This was evident at the December 10 public meeting. A video of the meeting is published on the city’s Deer Management Project webpage.  The slide presentation is also provided there.

Some History

A young buck pauses in an Ann Arbor back yard.

A young buck pauses in an Ann Arbor back yard.

Deer have been invading back yards (at least, mine) in Ann Arbor for about 10 years.  They have also been making their mark on automobiles in the area.  A vocal response to this situation is relatively recent. A group called Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance formed early in 2014 (their website is rich in data and reports, and more is added almost daily) to express concern about the loss of natural diversity caused by the overpopulation of deer in Washtenaw County’s natural areas.  This account of their presentation to the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission lays out a number of the issues.  The WC4EB includes people from groups such as the Wild Ones who appreciate native plant communities and the other wildlife (birds, small mammals, butterflies) that they support.  They called upon the County to take action to protect the natural areas that have received strong support from County taxpayers.

Meanwhile, in certain neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, notably those of the Second Ward, deer have been causing expensive damage to landscapes.  CM Jane Lumm has been the lead on this issue and reported a large volume of correspondence from constituents about the problem. On May 5, 2014, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution on the deer problem that directed the City Administrator to look into the issue and provide a report.  Discussion at Council that night is reported here.  Accordingly, a report was issued by Sumedh Bahl on behalf on the Administrator, dated August 14, 2014.  On August 18, 2014, Council passed another resolution that authorized the hiring of a consultant to “develop a community endorsed deer management plan”  The resolution noted that “Development of a community-endorsed deer management plan will require substantial work, including public engagement and information collection.”  The city issued an “RFP for Consultation Services for Development of Deer Management Plan”.  Evidently the only bidder was the favorite consultant of city staff, Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations.  Here is the proposal he submitted.  (A great deal of this is his usual proposal boilerplate; the actual proposal begins on page 12.)  A link to a survey was provided on the page about the project.

Solving a Problem

The approach that local government officials usually take to come up with a “plan” to solve a particular problem is familiar and fairly straightforward.  (Spoiler: it isn’t being done in this case.)

1. Frame the question.

This would customarily be done either by the leadership of a task force, board or commission, or by staff.  To some extent, this was done in the August report to Council, but not very concisely or usefully.  It might instead have been done like this:

Concern has been expressed about the increased population of deer in Ann Arbor and the effects, which may include vehicle accidents involving deer, damage to landscape plantings, and damage to vegetation in natural areas.  The City needs to determine the extent of problems. Possible solutions, their costs, and their public acceptance need to be examined.

2. Present a data overview.

Aerial counts are best done in the winter, when contrast is best and there are fewer leaves. Photo by Shawn Severance of Washtenaw County Parks Dept.

Staff or specially qualified consultants  would then assemble information for a background document.  In this case, useful information would include quantifiable data on local deer populations (from surveys) as available, a brief overview of deer biology and behavior, and data on vehicle accidents (from reports), damage to landscapes (this would be anecdotal but an effort could be made to collect information from complaints) and information about damage to native plants in public parks and natural areas (from surveys and data kept by the maintainers of those areas).  Where information is needed but not available, that should also be noted. The data overview could also include some generalizations based on data from elsewhere, where similar situations occur.  Regulatory information (laws and regulations, mostly from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) should also be included.

It is clear that such information was anticipated in the original (May 2014) Council resolution.

From Council resolution of 5/5/14

From Council resolution of 5/5/14

To some extent, this was accomplished with the August report to the Council.  However, in many instances the data were not available or were simply elided.  (There is no information about vegetation damage, either in landscapes or in natural areas.)

3. List alternatives

Next is a list of the available options for addressing the problem, with limitations (legal, practical, or cost) noted.  Experience from other communities in similar situations should be summarized.

The August report did list some approaches taken by other communities, and offered a brief evaluation of methods.  However, there was little in-depth detail, data on effectiveness, or documentation.  It would be expected that such information would be part of a final plan.  Apparently the staff anticipated that this work would be done by the consultant.  From the RFP job description:

“Assist in drafting a community endorsed deer-management plan which includes specific objectives of the plan, delineation of deer management area, selected method(s), public communication and other necessary elements.”

4. Ask for public response

For most plan exercises, “public engagement” means presenting a draft plan to the public, with alternative solutions or with recommendations.  However, this is where the Ann Arbor deer management project has veered to a different target.  It appears that the objective has now become to manipulate or manage the public to a particular conclusion.  Meanwhile, analysis and data collection seem to have fallen off the back of the truck, as have any attempt to picture possible approaches.

NOTE:  Posts on Ann Arbor’s deer problem and some other information are now listed on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?



Oh, Deer! Ann Arbor’s Herd Problem

Posted December 3, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Sustainability

In the end, the question of what to do about Ann Arbor’s excess deer is as much about values as about science.

deer watercolor B 1000x685

Slightly modified from a watercolor by Andrzej Kwiecinski, 1948-2009, Canadian artist

Deer are beautiful creatures.  To glimpse one peering out from a wood is like looking briefly into the absolute, in a way that few other animals evoke.  The perfect symmetry and wide-set eyes are arresting.  They are also beautiful in motion. Such grace.

Unfortunately, they have become noxious pests in the City of Ann Arbor.  And, incidentally,  in many other areas of the Northeast, especially in parks and areas that are intended to be devoted to wildlife and natural beauty. Locally, there has been plant damage at the Matthei Botanical Garden.  Aside from damage to vegetation, they are responsible for a notable number of auto collisions.  (View this neat animation by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

These two circumstances, both true, have set us up for some terrific conflicts.  Our local officials are facing contradictory calls, both to take measures (which generally involve culling, or killing, part of the local herd) and to save the lives of these beautiful creatures.  Emotions are high on both sides of the issue.   Council and the City of Ann Arbor have now, through issuance of a report and the hiring of a consultant (Project Innovations, headed by Charles Fleetham), brought us to a place where there will be a public discussion in an effort to find an approach that will meet some sort of community consensus.  A meeting is scheduled for  December 10, 2014, in the Media Center Room at Huron High School, at 7 p.m.   Here is the page on the City website about the project.

We’ll just have to accept the following premise:  Some residents in Ann Arbor believe fervently that no matter what the cost to others, the local deer herd should not be harmed and if any means are employed to limit them, they should be non-lethal (this usually involves contraception).  This belief is not likely to be altered by any presentation of data.

Others, including policymakers, recognize that there is a rising chorus of voices expressing consternation at the growing deer herd and the damages it can cause.  They are looking for information about causes and solutions.  (Disclosure: I am in favor of a solution that will reduce the local deer herd, likely some approach to culling, or killing, deer in public lands.)

A local group, Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, have been making the case to Washtenaw County and City of Ann Arbor officials that some proactive control of the deer population is needed.  Here is a good report of their presentation at a county parks commission meeting, from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  WC4EB’s website has many statistics and reports listed in their resource section.  As both that website, the Ann Arbor City report, and an excellent report on Washtenaw County deer populations explain, many communities in our immediate area have chosen to initiate some sort of culling either by sharpshooters, bow hunters, or opening selected areas to hunting.  Often the meat from the deer is then donated to food pantries.

It’s all about values

There are lots of data, studies, and reports that can elucidate the dynamics of deer populations and how they affect the rest of the world around them.  There will be opportunities to discuss and debate them.  But ultimately, the ground on which this (the question of whether to cull the local population) will be fought will be about values that individuals hold.  And those are hard to deal with on a rational basis.

  • Some people view venison as a legitimate and desirable part of our food supply, recognizing the historical role of deer as a food animal.
  • Others view the taking of deer, and in some cases, of any animal life (vegans in particular avoid even the consumption of animal products such as milk or eggs), as morally repugnant.
  • Some people place high value on their landscapes and garden plants and see the deer who make those part of their food supply as outright pests.
  • Others enjoy seeing deer in the vicinity of their homes, and even put out food or salt supplies to attract them for enjoyment.  They may not be gardeners, or not concerned about plants in their own properties.
  • Some people see deer as only one part of the natural environment, while other species such as wild plant communities, songbirds and other animals dependent on a diverse natural environment are equally important and worthy of protection in a “balanced” natural setting.
  • Others discount the damage to plant communities such as wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, as of less importance or a different order of importance than the lives of the deer.

In more rural areas, there are different issues, such as crop damage vs. easy availability during hunting season.  But those have less resonance with city dwellers.

So how do policymakers deal with these contradictory values?  They put out a survey and hold a public meeting.  After we all express our views, someone will have to make a decision.  We hope it won’t have to be too Solomonic.

Regardless of your view, here is your chance to express it.  Take the survey.    Note: the presentation is confusing.  You must hit the blue button to take the survey.  It won’t be submitted until you are finished.

UPDATE: The agenda for the December 10 public meeting has now been published.  The only interaction with the public is a public comment period.

SECOND UPDATE: Read a thoughtful overview on the subject by a well-respected local blogger who is also a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. 

THIRD UPDATE: Here is the Ann Arbor News’ coverage of the December 10 meeting.

NOTE: All posts on the subject of Ann Arbor’s deer, together with some other information, are now listed on our page What Do We Do About the Deer?



Feeling Blue – Ann Arbor and UM Football

Posted November 1, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Trends

What is the future for University of Michigan football and how will it affect Ann Arbor?

Photo Services, Kim Haskins

Ann Arbor’s life is inextricably bound up with the University of Michigan.  By “Ann Arbor’s life”, I mean both the daily course of life as it is lived here and the economics of the city and its citizens.  Of course many UM staff and faculty live here (though that is an increasingly small fraction) and we all enjoy the range of cultural events available through the University, not to mention the occasional stroll across the Diag.  The yearly influx of students affects both housing affordability and the mix of businesses on State Street.  But the most impactful aspect of the UM that touches life here may very well be UM football.  Thus, when UM football is in crisis, Ann Arbor is in crisis. The recent history of UM football, which has now culminated in the resignation of Athletic Director Dave Brandon on October 31, 2014, can fairly be said to be a crisis.

I became aware of the importance of UM football on the day of my introduction to Ann Arbor.  We arrived for a house-hunting tour on a cold November day just after a fairly big snowfall.  Our realtor picked us up at the Sheraton just after breakfast.  His first act was to take us to the UM Stadium.  At the time, access was fairly open, and he hauled us up the stairs to look over the expanse of field and bleachers.  Waving exultantly to indicate the magnificence of the view, he invited us to take part in the wonder.  I was cold (since I possessed no real winter clothing), slightly jet-lagged after a transcontinental journey from Southern California, and stressed by the prospect of house-hunting and moving.  My response was impatient.  He was greatly offended and scarcely spoke again for several hours.

This was in the golden age of Bo Schembechler, and one of our new neighbors was such a football fan that our whole block reverberated on home football days.  There were banners.  The front page of the Ann Arbor News was completely occupied by football news and three-inch headlines led by “BO”. To this non-sports fan, all this was quite exotic.

Big Business

UM football continued to expand its profile and influence, even as its prowess on the field declined.  (Bo’s successor,  Gary Moeller, endured a couple of years being called “Mo” by the Ann Arbor News, but the team did not reach its previous heights.)  It has long been impossible to drive anywhere on city streets in the hours preceding a game, or to find a restaurant table on game day.  The stadium reopened in 2010 after an extensive renovation that included premium suites with a private elevator.   (These “skyboxes” elicited a protest based on the loss of egalitarian access to the community tradition.)  Two years ago, the City of Ann Arbor began permitting the closure of Main Street during football games.  The UM constructed an electronic marquee on Stadium that far exceeds size and placement permitted by Ann Arbor’s sign ordinance.  As described by the Ann Arbor News,

The marquee is indeed the largest of its kind in the Ann Arbor area: it stands 21 feet above the ground and is 27 feet tall and 48 feet wide. It runs 18 hours a day, displaying four promotional messages per minute. On game days it shows video starting four hours prior to the game.

One reason the UM football machine has been able to expand its footprint on the city has been its profitability, founded on its faithful fan base.  Joe Nocera, writing in 2010 about the stadium expansion in the New York Times,  noted:

Even if its football team has a string of bad years, it still has an immensely loyal fan base, it will still secure the financial rewards that come with being in the Big Ten and it will still fill Michigan Stadium every time the team plays a home game.

But that fan base has been badly eroded during the tenure of Dave Brandon, who was installed in 2010 as Athletic Director.  Brandon, who has been a CEO at Domino’s Pizza among other such high-profile positions, set out to exploit UM Football’s popularity for profit.  He made his intentions clear in an early statement (quoted here from Crain’s Detroit Business):

“We’re going to need to grow our revenues, we’re going to need to continue to find out ways to stimulate growth in our external revenue streams and maybe create some new revenue streams that afford us the ability to grow,” he said.

John U. Bacon has written for years about Michigan football with sensitivity and acute perception.  Bacon, in a column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, described the practice of seat licenses (requiring an upfront “donation” for the privilege of buying tickets) and other changes that Brandon introduced to increase yield from the fans. He mentions that with his two seats, the cost is $1,700 (presumably for the season). He later identified the problems with the way fans were being treated and exhibited prescience in this June 2014 column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

This fall, Michigan is in danger of breaking its string of 251 consecutive games with 100,000-plus paid attendance, which started in 1975. Treat your fans like customers long enough, and eventually they’ll start behaving that way, reducing their irrational love for their team to a cool-headed, dollars-and-cents decision to buy tickets or not, with no more emotional investment than deciding whether to go to the movies.

There were many other grievances that will be detailed in the host of obituaries for this era.

I have been amazed at the trouble and expense that fans will go to in order to experience UM football.  Some drive a long distance.  They find parking ($20-$50), often arriving before 7:00 a.m. for a spot, or even pay to hire a party area for the perfect tailgate. There are anecdotal reports that people have bought downtown condos solely to have a place to stay on the 5-6 fall football weekends.  This willingness to spend has been a boon to Ann Arbor’s hospitality industry.  Hotels and restaurants may depend on those few weekends the way retailers count on Christmas. Clearly, that level of commitment and investment has been essential to the success of Michigan football.

The Concussion Issue

UM has had a miserable football season, with many games lost and worse, much critical comment about the quality of the play overall.  But the last straw was the treatment of an injured player on September 27, 2014.  (Timeline from Ann Arbor News)  Quarterback Shane Morris was seen to take a fall and behave shakily, with contemporaneous reports that he seemed to have trouble standing. But he was then sent back into play by coach Brady Hoke.  This scandalized viewers at the time, and the hue and cry only increased later.  At first, both Hoke and Brandon denied that Morris had had a concussion, but in a statement the next day (reported by Crain’s), Brandon acknowledged that Morris had “a mild concussion”.  The account only calls in to question the behavior of those charged with safeguarding the health of players, with evident poor communication at the field.

Concussions sustained while playing football have now been recognized as a serious medical problem.  The CDC emphatically recommends that concussed athletes should be removed from play.  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (changes in brain structure) is now thought to result from repeated head trauma.  A number of former NFL players who suffered from various cognitive problems sued the NFL and were tentatively awarded a settlement.  But this has not satisfied the critics. There are now increasing numbers of calls to regulate football at all levels (Compendium of New York Times coverage).  There are also suggestions, even from lovers of the game, that it may be immoral to continue a game which results in a lower life expectancy for many players, with a high degree of risk for dementia or suicide.

Coinciding with this controversy is the increasing call for college football players to be better compensated, or to be able to join a union.  The NCAA rules maintain that these are students and are compensated by the football scholarships they are awarded.  But as this column by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out, the NCAA made billions last year, and coaches typically have salaries in the millions.

While these coaches and executives may deserve these amounts, they shouldn’t earn them while the 18-to-21-year-old kid who plays every game and risks a permanent career-ending injury gets only scholarship money — money that can be taken away if the player is injured and can’t contribute to the team anymore.

Students, Academics, and the Mission of the University

All of this calls into question the inherent fallacy of the concept of the “student athlete”, at least as the game is conducted today.  I don’t know whether there are any studies showing how many UM football scholars are able to attain professional positions apart from professional football itself.  In the past, football players for UM went on to often distinguished careers (Dave Brandon was himself in UM football back in the Bo Schlembacher days).  Given the intense training and extended season for football nowadays, it seems to be quite a lot to surmount.  The tradition of intercollegiate athletics comes from the “mens sana in corpore sano” ideal, in which one might be studying the classics on Thursday, play a game over the weekend, then back into the classroom or library the next day.  Many college athletics programs still adhere to this ideal, as students in various departments might participate in music or theater along with a major.  But it is questionable whether UM football still affords that flexibility.

It may be that the new UM President, Mark Schlissel, will be the person to lead a transition in the way the UM and its football program are joined.  He has sent signals about this conundrum since his arrival here early last summer.  He landed immediately in a controversy with the Regents over fireworks at the Stadium (a fight Brandon lost).  Here were his remarks at the time:

What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does. Athletics isn’t part of the mission statement of the university. We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics.

I also feel strongly that the students who come here to be athletes – are students and that they have all the opportunities for education and to take advantage of everything that goes on here at the university, as well as pursue the sport that they love.

Dr. Schlissel is a true scholar (his field is the area of gene regulation in immunology, a very hot subject) and clearly has a view of the University in its historical context as a community of scholars, advancing the preservation and continuation of knowledge. Now the UM is positioning itself as a premier international research university.  There has been a lot of expansion, both within UM departments and in offshoots.  There are reputations to be made, and money.  There are thousands of academic careers to be advanced.  The UM has a collective interest in the highest standards and performance. There are other things happening besides football.

Schlissel is clearly struggling with the role of UM football in a thoughtful and careful manner.  Here is what he said in recent days after all the eruptions.

I think the sport of football and college athletics in general is certainly a matter of discussion and debate around the country. I’d like to develop clearer opinions. I’d like to work with our interim and our new athletic director to contribute to the process of evolution of college athletics in a direction that I think is more closely linked to the fact that there are academic institutions and students are here both for education and for the pursuit of sports they love. That’s as far as I’m able to go now.

He will have a great deal to reconcile.  There are the finances – the program took on a lot of expenses with the stadium renovation, and Brandon seems to have made a number of investments in anticipation of the continued growth in revenues. There are some very influential and motivated alumni who want to see the program continue.  First among these is Stephen M. Ross, who gave the UM $200 million last year.  This brings his lifetime donations to $313 million.  (So we now have the Stephen M. Ross Business School, and the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus.)

He’ll also have that great cloud of traditional UM football fans, many of whom are also alumni, to deal with.  I suspect that at times he can hear the massed sound of those beating hearts.  The passion is so great.

And then there are the business interests in the City of Ann Arbor.

Black September and October

A great deal of money flows into Ann Arbor during the home football games.  We’ve gotten used to it.  I am comparing it to Black Friday for retailers.  People rent their lawns for parking.  People work the Stadium in various ways, including the cleanup.  There are sales of memorabilia.  And the hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) are usually up to full capacity.  But a bad football season can cause worries, as detailed in this article in the Ann Arbor News.    It quotes Mary Kerr of the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (which is supported by the hotel industry via an accommodation ordinance tax) about the economic impact of the UM football season.  Most of the figures come from a study in 2007, which estimated that each UM home football game has an impact of $14.8 million to the overall economy of Ann Arbor.  A more recent study estimated that visitors to Ann Arbor associated with the UM (not clear whether they distinguished football and other sports from academic visitors) are responsible for $257 million in economic impact.  Obviously, UM football is an important asset from the viewpoint of those affected by the dollars spent here.

An Uncertain Future

Will UM football just go on as it has, with a better administrator and some minor course corrections?  Or will there be some real changes in the way the program relates to the University and, ultimately, the City of Ann Arbor? Can UM football escape the more global changes in the sport of football itself? The answers will doubtless result in some effect on our local community, whether or not we are individually interested in the sport itself.

UPDATE: This article on the Ann Arbor News site appears to be a rather comprehensive overview of the economics of Dave Brandon’s tenure as Athletic Director.

SECOND UPDATE: A couple of articles from Ann Arbor News indicate the difficulty Schlissel will have in reconciling academic concerns with Michigan football culture.  On November 10, he spoke at a UM committee meeting on the balance between athletics and academics.  On November 11, he found himself apologizing to the football coach, Brady Hoke.  Here are his official comments.

THIRD UPDATE: Coach Brady Hoke has been relieved of his position as of December 2, 2014, according to a statement in the University Record.   This followed yet another disappointing loss, to the Ohio State Buckeyes, on November 29.

FOURTH UPDATE: Amid speculation and fragmentary news reports that UM has offered an expensive contract to NFL coach Jim Harbaugh, the Detroit Free Press quotes a Forbes report that UM football is the third highest “valued” college football in the country. The basis for calculating the value is interesting: it includes “community value (which) is the economic impact generated by home football games”.

 FIFTH UPDATE: Mass jubilation has ensued over Jim Harbaugh’s hiring as head coach.  As this article from Crain’s Detroit Business describes, his early history was based in Ann Arbor and UM football, and he quarterbacked under the legendary Bo Schembechler.  But questions about the meaning of college football remain, amidst all the hype.  A thoughtful article in the New York Times analyzes the contradictions between the big-money position of college football and the academic setting in which it is played.

SIXTH UPDATE: The drumbeat of bad news about football and its role in cognitive problems later in life continues.  A recent study links football playing in childhood to discernible diminution in performance on a variety of tests.  In response to such studies, the NFL is sponsoring special workshops for parents, ostensibly to help their children reduce the likelihood of injury.  As this report from the New York Times describes,  it is important to the business of the NFL to keep a supply of young players in the pipeline.  But one lawyer who has worked with victims says, “Simply put, it cannot be made safe. Football is a concussion delivery system.”


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