Oh, Deer! Ann Arbor’s Herd Problem

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?



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3 Comments on “Oh, Deer! Ann Arbor’s Herd Problem”

  1. Nancy Kaplan Says:

    Thank you Vivienne for sending this thoughtful blog and the link to the survey. Nancy

  2. Robert Frank Says:

    Vivienne, thanks for your blog. I did not see any mention of deer ticks/Lyme disease in your blog. This is a major concern for me. Also, the deer have no fear of humans. I go in my backyard to shoo them away and they challenge me. Scary. The only answer appears to be a deer kill/cull.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks – I agree, the Lyme disease issue is a concern. Fortunately, we do not currently have a real issue with that in this part of Michigan, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. Lyme disease is disabling and can affect one’s quality of life for years.

      And yes, if we are not allowed to use weapons (as is true here in Ann Arbor), we don’t have many defenses. Deer can use hooves to attack, and of course the bucks can attempt to gore, which they do in some circumstances.

      This post was not intended to be a complete coverage of all the issues. I hope that I will be able to complete another one. But this is a complex issue. I’ve been seeing reports from other communities that are 25 pages long.

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