Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ category

Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor

April 16, 2017

It seems to have gone on forever.  But really, only for about a decade.  Now here we are, once again deciding on the fate of the Library Lot – that small precious piece of real estate next to the Ann Arbor District Library.

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

The Ann Arbor City Council will vote on this resolution on April 17, 2017.   It either will or will not award development rights for the Library Lot (retaining ownership of the actual land) to Core Spaces, which describes itself as “a full‐service real estate development, acquisition and management company”, and further identifies its target markets as “educational”, in other words, student-oriented.  The result will be a 17-story building, bigger than anything we could have imagined 10 years ago.

Feelings are running high and the volume of email to Council must be stupendous.  Just to make the drama more intense, because the resolution disposes of city property, it requires 8 of 11 Council votes (counting the Mayor).  Three CM have made their dislike fairly public (Eaton, Kailasapathy, Lumm).  So each one of the remaining 8 can be the one to make or break the deal.  It is generally understood that Mayor Taylor favors it.  Are all the rest committed to support it, in the face of a great deal of public opposition?  Some, especially those who are new to Council or up for re-election, are likely feeling the heat.

Why is this so important to so many?  Its importance (as measured by heat and light generated) is far more than most tall building development projects downtown.  There are many facets to the issue.  But most of all, this decision is symbolic about the direction that Ann Arbor is headed.  In many ways, it is a battle for the soul of Ann Arbor.

What Do We Want To Be?

This article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) outlined many issues and described the Calthorpe public process. (Click for link.)

The battle for the future of Ann Arbor has been the underpinning of our politics for over 10 years. One could argue that it began with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor in 2000, or the renewal of the DDA Charter in 2003.  That launched an emphasis on downtown development that has changed not only the appearance of Ann Arbor’s downtown, but its perceived purpose and use. There was also a shift in the objectives for the city as a whole.  We have often thought our city to be rather special, in a community-supportive, casually fun but also fairly intellectual, colorful but not in an overly contrived sort of way. See our post, What Does it Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie. In other words, a city to serve its citizens and welcome visitors on our own terms.  But in recent years, a new agenda has been espoused by the majority on our City Council.  This is spelled out at length in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, it is to transform the city into a cradle of entrepreneurship and enterprise, especially by attracting “talent” (young people who can start or sustain high-tech enterprises).  Much of this is based on the concept of the “Creative Class”, as described by the urbanist Richard Florida in his 2002 book.

One could argue that Ann Arbor is doing very well and is succeeding in this talent-seeking strategy.  We are listed over and over again on national lists as in the top 10 for various qualities.  Maps showing economic success usually show our Washtenaw County as standing out.  But interestingly, Richard Florida himself has had something of a change of heart. Florida’s recent book, The New Urban Crisis, recognizes that the type of “success” we have enjoyed has come with a cost to whole swaths of demographics.  As he says in a recent article,

 As techies, professionals, and the rich flowed back into urban cores, the less advantaged members of the working and service classes, as well as some artists and musicians, were being priced out….I found myself confronting the dark side of the urban revival I had once championed and celebrated…As the middle class and its neighborhoods fade, our geography is splintering into small areas of affluence and concentrated advantage, and much larger areas of poverty and concentrated disadvantage.

And a summary from another article :

America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.

Sure enough, a graphic from the article shows that Ann Arbor is #11 on his “Urban Crisis Index”.  Do increasing economic inequality, loss of affordability in housing, and racial/class segregation sound familiar?  Washtenaw County paid good money a couple of years ago for a consultant to tell us this about ourselves.  So, Ann Arbor is succeeding as a business proposition.  Is it losing what makes it successful as a place to live?  As a community in the whole?

(Florida will be keynoting this year’s SPARK meeting on April 24.  It’ll be interesting to hear what he says about our local situation.)

The Importance of the Library Lot

So what does the Library Lot have to do with all this? Because the Library Lot belongs to the entire City of Ann Arbor, and thus presumably its public, and because the project is so wildly out of scale with the downtown historic districts that supposedly make our downtown successful, not to mention the residential neighborhood immediately to the south, and because while this is a public asset, the benefit to the Ann Arbor public has not evidently been a consideration. (No public process has been employed to arrive at this use.) For all these reasons, the debate has been more passionate than for other downtown projects.  The Ann Arbor public continue to assert ownership.  For that reason, it stands as a symbol of the decisions to be made about our downtown, and thus our city.

But many other interests have eyed this choice little bit of real estate for particular ends.  The DDA has had a single-minded intent to increase the magnitude of development in the downtown, generally.  A group of influential insiders put forth a plan as early as 2008 to build a hotel and conference center on the lot, with the DDA’s assistance.  The Library Lot Conference Center controversy and battle is recorded in this series of posts.  The effort was finally killed by Council resolution in April, 2011 after a public campaign by concerned citizens.  Meanwhile, the DDA had constructed an underground parking structure in which part of the structure was specifically reinforced to support the intended hotel.

Projection of desired building density (700 F.A.R) for Library Lot in DDA study, 2013. Purple area is unreinforced “plaza”.

Things slowed down for a bit while the Ann Arbor District Library planned to build a new library.  The new building would not have been on the Lot (the current building would first have been demolished) but doubtless the Lot would have been used for staging.  However, that bond proposal was defeated in November, 2012.   The DDA sprang to the task of planning the immediate area in a project called “Connecting William Street”.  They used a pseudo-public approach (online surveys, public meetings) which unsurprisingly arrived at the conclusion that a tall building was needed on the lot.  The plan met with derision in some quarters and the City Council declined to adopt it.  It was added to the “resource documents” for the Planning Commission in March, 2013.

In a memorably feckless act (thank you, CM Kunselman), Council passed a resolution in April 2014 to hire a real estate broker.  They put the Lot up for sale.   Although the resolution cites the Connecting William Street project, no further effort was made to establish what the Ann Arbor public saw as the best use for this site.   Further, it accepted the notion that the reinforced portion of the lot would be used for building.  So here we are.

From page 42, Downtown Development Strategies, Calthorpe Associates, 2005

The Calthorpe process, 2005, is often cited as demonstrating that there was a public process followed for the fate of this parcel.  There was a report on Downtown Development Strategies issued (many recommendations have been ignored).  It does not make a specific recommendation on the Library Lot.  However, it calls for building height to be stepped down toward the residential neighborhoods, especially that last block before William.  And it calls for a Town Square.

ADDENDUM: The Library Lot was briefly, but seriously, considered as a site for a new City Hall, a.k.a Municipal Center, in 2006.  Here is the task force report. Community Security and Public Space 2006 The report specifically notes the importance of “an outdoor gathering place” and put the Library Lot high on the alternatives for a new Municipal Center that would include a public space.


It’s Not Just About a Park

Admittedly, the idea of a downtown “Central Park” (or Town Square) has been a major theme of the disputes about the Library Lot.  The Library Green Conservancy has been advocating vigorously for a park on the portion of the lot without special reinforcement, and there was that whole problem with collection of signatures on petitions. The DDA has been trying to put a damper on that idea for years.  (The Connecting William Street exercise did not even acknowledge the possibility.)

It’s Not Just About the Parking

The deal has serious implications to downtown parking.  It would give away a substantial part of this expensive structure to a private enterprise. (Some historical details are here: note we will be paying interest for many years to come.)  There are also legal questions that have not been satisfactorily answered.    Read it here.  Finally, it will reduce access to downtown by its customers. Downtown business organizations have objected.

It’s About Our Downtown, Our City

Our social media and comment pages are flooded with anguished complaints and worries about this project.  It is clear that our citizens do not believe this will enhance our experience of our city and that it will likely damage the downtown.  The comments shown below are from my personal social media feeds (Facebook, Nextdoor) and are unedited but anonymous because I don’t wish to make the writers’ identity the issue.  (Click on the boxes to read at full magnification.)






Note that these comments are all about quality of life and the viability of our downtown businesses.  There is a concern about the resilience of this part of our community, and of course the Downtown is still the center of town, and a location that affects us all.

If Council does vote to approve this deal, they will be going against the express wishes of a substantial number of their constituents.  Based on comments in the media, it seems that they are dazzled by the cash offer.  A complication is that it will supposedly be an assist to “affordable housing”.  But the benefits in that regard are modest.  (One scenario even has the City paying over a million dollars back in order to obtain more units.)  We have not really had a city-based discussion about what we want in “affordable housing” or what our best means of achieving that are.  It seems imprudent to sell off one of our choicest assets for this purpose, especially since so many questions persist about the effects of the parking on both businesses and city finances.  If our city finances are so challenged (and they do not seem to be) we should be looking at savings or new taxes instead of selling off our real estate.

Or – is Council going to go ahead with this because of the dogma of dense development?  In that case, are they considering the health of our present community?  Or are they aiming for a different one?  If the latter, they’d better consider more carefully the consequences of their actions.  A city is a complex ecosystem.  The Council has a solemn duty here.  I hope that they vote to preserve our community.  It has so much good, still.

ADDENDUM: Here is the Ann Arbor News preview of tonight’s vote. “And the consequences of whichever way the council votes could last for generations.”  Yup.

UPDATE: The Council voted to sell the lot, 8-3.  All the usual suspects voted as anticipated.  Here is what Mayor Taylor had to say about it.  

“I love Ann Arbor the way it is. We are not Chicago or Detroit, and I don’t want to be. ”





Bagging the Plastics Ban: Washtenaw County’s Never-was Ordinance

January 4, 2017

no-plastic-bagsIt was one of those great outrages.  In the closing days of the 2016 session, the Michigan Legislature killed any possibility of Washtenaw County’s attempt to regulate plastic grocery bags.  “Ban on local plastic bag bans now Michigan law”, reported MLive. Outgoing State Representative Jeff Irwin decried this defeat for local control.  This was seen as another case of Republican domination of progressive Michigan municipalities (cities and counties).  A few days later, another news account stated, Washtenaw County concedes it can’t enforce disposable bag ordinance.  The bill (Senate Bill 853)  is succinct but also thorough: it mentions regulation of any “auxiliary container” of almost any composition as being forbidden for local units of government.  (There goes any hope of banning styrofoam clamshells.)

But the story is more complicated than it appears at first and there are some questions.

Washtenaw County’s ordinance is the only such regulation in the State of Michigan.

As explained in this memo from Water Resources Commissioner Evan Pratt to the Board of Commissioners’ Ways and Means Committee last May, the existence of Senate Bill 853 was already understood at the time the BOC passed the ordinance.

Senate Bill 853, currently pending in Michigan legislature, seeks to withhold local government authority to regulate “auxiliary containers,” a category within which carryout grocery bags falls. If SB853 is adopted by the State of Michigan, it would act to preempt a County bag ordinance. Washtenaw County seeks to retain its local authority to regulate the material in furtherance of its duty to optimally manage solid waste within its geographic boundaries, and to increase Washtenaw County’s recycling and waste economy to full extent possible.

The motivation for adopting an ordinance in the face of a likely preemption by the State is unclear. Are we trying to make a point or hoping that it will survive to be enforced?  That expression about “seeks to retain its local authority” seems to argue the first.

In spite of most indications, the ordinance is not just about plastic bags. It also applies to paper bags.

The proposed bag ordinance is not a ban.  And it sanctions disposable paper bags just as much as plastic bags.  This although almost all the educational material about the ordinance specifies plastic bags.  The slide show on the ordinance given to the BOC in a work session is all about the hazards of plastics.  The memo that accompanied the resolution stated that it was about “a policy to combat the problems caused by excessive plastic bag waste in our community”. The resolution setting the public hearing on the ordinance mentions only plastic bags.  And yet the ordinance cracks down just as hard on paper grocery bags.

Did the Commissioners know what they were passing?

ugly-plastic-bagNow, it is hard to love plastic grocery bags. They are ugly, consume valuable unrenewable resources, are a hazard to animals, glob up machinery of recycling plants, and last longer than the human race.   They actually cost the County and other units of government money. They are difficult to recycle even when collected.  Surely no one who cares could object to banning them, and in fact this was a very popular idea.

Paper grocery bags are another matter.  Many of us reuse these bags many times or at least once. They compost. They are recyclable. They are most often made from recycled paper.  No, they are not a “zero footprint” item but just not in the same class as a plastic bag.  Besides, that is not how this ordinance was being sold.  Yet, they are being treated exactly the same as plastic bags in the ordinance.  The indication is that customers should bring reusable bags (most often cloth).

The whole enterprise has a rather unpleasant air of bait-and-switch.  Don’t like plastic bags? Fine, and also you can’t use paper bags (hidden in the fine print).

It suddenly seems to be about money.

Here’s what the ordinance does.  It imposes a ten cents fee on the consumer for each plastic OR PAPER bag used.  Of that, 8 cents goes into a new fund (the Stewardship Fund) that the County has created.  The retailer gets 2 cents, which is to be used only for enforcing the ordinance.  There are also civil infraction fines for retailers who do not cooperate.

What this does is to create a monetary incentive for the County for consumers to use plastic bags (or paper).  You rush into Meijer to buy some milk and bread.  Cashier says “it’ll cost you 10 cents per bag”.  You say, “whatever”.  Out the door.  It actually incentivizes the retailer to keep on providing these bags too.  I can’t imagine the County sending around deputies to check on the quality of their environmental education efforts. The cost to the retailer for providing plastic bags is less than for paper bags, but they get to keep the same fee.

So how effective would this have been in preventing use of plastic bags? My estimation is, not very.  If your budget is very, very tight, you might sweat those couple or five dimes.  Or you might remember to bring bags whenever you have a big shopping to do.  (As far as I can tell, no forgiveness for simply reusing old paper bags, either.  The ordinance imposes conditions on the “reusable bag” that may be used.)  Mostly, it would just be an additional cost that most consumers would pay at checkout.  And money would go to the County.

It is hard to escape the thought that this might be a way to raise revenue for the County’s solid waste endeavors as much or more than actually changing behavior on bags.  Those fees would add up.  Do you know how hard it is these days for counties to get money?  And the Washtenaw County solid waste program used to be dependent on tipping fees from the Salem Township landfill.  I don’t know how that is going these days.

By the way, I think the fees may not have passed the test of the Bolt decision.  Michigan municipalities are not supposed to impose new fees unless they are related to the delivery of a specific service.  I don’t see how this qualifies.  One of those sticky only-in-Michigan constitutional issues.

If only…

What might have worked?  There are many examples around the country.  If the County could have simply banned use of plastic bags (and it does ban some things, like smoking in workplaces), that would have achieved the stated objective more simply and effectively.  For reducing waste due to paper bags: many retailers even now give a 5 cent credit for each bag you bring in.  Depending on the market, they could increase that to 10 cents and raise their prices slightly. That is essentially the same as charging 10 cents for use of a new bag.

Good legislation should achieve its stated goal without being any more intrusive than necessary.  This did not pass the test.

Meanwhile, let’s lean back and blame it on the Republicans.  They probably deserve it.



So Where are We Now with Ann Arbor’s Deer?

December 30, 2016

The last three years have been the Early Period for Ann Arbor’s deer debate.  Now there is a coherent plan for deer management and a page containing historical documents on the Ann Arbor City website – quite a long story.  We posted extensively about this issue through 2015.  Those posts and other articles and resources may be found on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer.  2017 will be busy. In a special session on November 14, 2016, Council approved several resolutions to make the management plan operable.   According to the Ann Arbor News, officials are still awaiting permit approvals by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  Maps showing where a sterilization program will be conducted have also been published.

For several decades, the white-tailed deer have been appearing around the edges of the city. But as of early 2014, they became numerous enough to be real pests.  As the numbers of the animals began to intrude on more and more human lives, there was an organized effort to limit their effects on gardens, natural area vegetation and automobile crash incidents.  Their impact on parks and natural areas in Washtenaw County was recognized by the WC Parks & Recreation Commission in early 2014. In May 2014, Ann Arbor’s City Council directed the City Administrator to prepare a report on deer management in partnership with other entities.

Numbers of DVDs in Ann Arbor City between 2005 and 2015. Source: Michigan Traffic Crash Facts.

Numbers of DVCs in Ann Arbor City between 2005 and 2015. Source: Michigan Traffic Crash Facts.

As the account in the Ann Arbor Chronicle about that Council meeting indicates, one impetus to raising the problem of the increasing deer population was the slow increase in the number of deer-vehicle crash incidents.  These are reported in Michigan via a website, “Michigan Traffic Crash Facts“, whose data is from safety (law enforcement) personnel.  (There is always a delay after the end of a calendar year in publishing the totals for the previous year, so as of today’s writing we must wait for a couple of months before we know the totals for 2016.)  By 2014, DVCs in Ann Arbor had increased by 30% from the previous decade.  Last year, there was a major jump in numbers of crashes.  We’ll be watching to see if 2016’s number indicates a trend or that this was an aberration.

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

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

So why do we need a deer management program?  Because of their explosive reproductive capability.  As we explained in detail in our post, Deer and the Numbers Explosion, deer will increase their numbers exponentially if left unchecked.  In the early years, one only notices that there are more deer around than in the past.  Suddenly 10 deer are camping out in your backyard.  This increase in numbers has many effects on the immediate territory.

The common white trillium is used as an indicator of deer herbivory. Photo by B. Ball, courtesy of the UM Herbarium.

The common white trillium is used as an indicator of deer herbivory. Photo by B. Ball, courtesy of the UM Herbarium.

  1. Plant herbivory: Most plants (or at least their edible parts) are consumed.  This causes damage to gardens and landscapes, and natural areas where native plant communities are being maintained are severely altered. As we explained in Deer and the Flowers of the Earth, wildflowers are beautiful and a source of delight for visitors, but they are also extremely important in the survival of the entire wild community.   Plants are “foundational” in a wild ecosystem and without them, nothing lives, even the deer.  Fifth Ward councilmember Chuck Warpehoski has expressed this beautifully in his recently updated post.
  2. Deer-vehicle crashes: As we have already noted, DVCs increase with increasing population.  To date, we have not had any crashes locally where a human has been killed, but there has been considerable dollar damage to automobiles and the potential for human injury is certainly there.
  3. Lyme Disease:  Deer have a complex relationship with this disease.  They provide a blood meal for black-legged ticks, the vector for this bacterial disease, and help carry the tick into new territory.  Also, their plant herbivory often favors an understory full of Japanese barberry.  Deer don’t eat this thorny shrub and it provides an ideal habitat for the white-footed mouse, the main host for the tick.  Mice multiply under the canopy of the low shrub and help carry the tick and its bacterial rider into new territory.

Lyme disease is known as an “emerging disease” in Michigan.  It has been moving into new areas of the state. When the deer problem was first highlighted in 2014, it was thought to be a couple of counties west of Washtenaw.  Now there are recognized cases in our county.  We are all at risk.   I hope that our governments provide adequate education so that people can recognize the disease and seek immediate treatment.   Here is a good place to start.


UPDATE:   The City of Ann Arbor has now posted an explanation of the 2017 deer management programA somewhat more easily accessed account was published by MLive. 

Here is the deer management map.  Note that some residential areas are targeted for participation in the nonlethal program. Also note that without fanfare, some UM properties have been included in the lethal culling program.

SECOND UPDATE: The University of Michigan made some of its properties available for the cull for the first time this year, eliciting some cries of anguish from the opposition.  Here is an explanation from the University Record of the program from the UM perspective.

THIRD UPDATE: On March 8, 2017, there will be a lecture program addressing the problem of deer herbivory from an experimental and data-oriented viewpoint. The two presenters are both experienced with direct testing of deer-wild flora interactions.  Jacqueline Courteau is a wildlife biologist and consultant, and Paul Muelle has been the manager of natural resources at a major park (Huron-Clinton Metroparks) through a time that culling and vegetation assessment have been practiced to maintain the parks’ resources.  Here is the full announcement about the talk.  It will be at the Matthei Botanical Gardens, 6:45 p.m. on March 8.

Ann Arbor Deer: The Survey

April 10, 2016

The City of Ann Arbor is soliciting feedback from residents about the deer management program.  The questions are simple and direct.  (Apparently this year the City sought some expert advice.)  It doesn’t take long.

The survey is important because it will provide data not only about attitudes but also the actual experience Ann Arborites have had with deer.  These data will be valuable in assessing the deer-human interface – an important question when trying to estimate what population of deer in the city is too much.  The survey also contains questions about methodology – a lethal cull as was conducted this year, or an experimental approach using contraception.

Here is the announcement of the survey, with a link to open it up.  You’ll need to register with Open City Hall in order to have your response counted.

The deadline for answers is April 29, 2016.  Hurry!

Note: A compendium of blog posts on this subject, reports from other media, and general reference material is found on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?

This summary page is updated continuously.

Deer and the Population Problem

August 4, 2015
Nine deer winter 2015

Deer in an Ann Arbor back yard, winter 2016

We have been posting about Ann Arbor’s deer herd and the issues it raises since last December (see our summary page, What Do We Do About the Deer? for a list of posts and also useful resources and links to news articles).  There are many reasons to be concerned about the size of the herd.

Deer-Vehicle crashes.  According to SEMCOG, there were 952 reported deer-vehicle crashes in Washtenaw County for 2014 (33 injuries), and 51 (1 injury) in Ann Arbor.  Anecdotally, there are many more “near misses” where drivers avoid a crash but not an adrenaline rush. (The numbers reflect only reports made to the police.)

Lyme Disease.  (Be afraid.  Be very afraid.) The presence of Lyme disease in humans and the prevalence of deer are closely correlated.  Lyme is a truly scary disease that is curable by antibiotics if caught in the early stages of infection.  Often, however, the disease is not detected early and may even be mistaken for other diseases.  In its chronic form, it has long-lasting neurological effects.   This is not just another little “bug” that most people get over easily.  It can be life-changing.

The migration east of Lyme Disease. Note that Jackson County is now shown as potential though unconfirmed.

The migration east of Lyme Disease. Note that Jackson County is now shown as potential though unconfirmed.

Lyme disease has affected some individuals in Washtenaw County but there are no verified cases of transmission here as yet.  In order to verify transmission, the tick itself must be sent to a laboratory and tested for the presence of the bacterium.  It is assumed that all current cases in the county originated from an infection elsewhere.  However, according to the State of Michigan, Lyme disease is an “emerging disease” and is steadily moving eastward from southwestern Michigan, where it was first described in our state.  How is it moving? Deer (they don’t recognize county boundary lines).

Shamefully, individuals who oppose lethal culling in Ann Arbor have made the technically accurate but misleading statement that “deer don’t carry Lyme Disease”. Lyme is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that are carried by deer ticks (black-legged ticks).  It has a complicated disease cycle.  Young ticks (nymphs) exist primarily on rodents, especially the white-footed mouse.  The mouse is the reservoir host for the Lyme disease bacterium and does not appear to be harmed by the infection or the tick burden.  The ticks climb onto deer as adults for their blood meal prior to reproduction.  Deer carry them into human contact.  Without deer in the neighborhood, Lyme Disease transmission would occur very rarely.  There is general agreement that Lyme disease incidence and deer density are strongly correlated.  In one important study, a severe reduction in deer density reduced the number of cases in a Connecticut community markedly.  The deer population was reduced by over 80% by a hunting program, to about 5 deer per square kilometer (just over 12 per square mile).  The incidence of Lyme Disease was reduced by 80%.

“Reducing deer populations to levels that reduce the potential for ticks to successfully breed should be an important component of any long-term strategy seeking to reduce the risk of people contracting Lyme disease,” they concluded. “Additionally, good hunter access to deer habitat and a wide variety of management tools (bait, unlimited tags, incentive programs) are important components of a successful deer reduction strategy.”

This video has good pointers on how the presence of Lyme-bearing ticks can modify the way you can enjoy the out-of-doors.  It is also a good review of Lyme disease, the deer-tick-mouse equation, how to deal with ticks that you bring home, and other good information.  Really, it is worth your time. Beautifully produced with views of Nantucket.

Our Natural Areas. Ann Arbor has invested a great deal of money both to acquire our natural areas and parks and to maintain them.  We have hundreds of volunteers who turn out to remove invasive shrubs and do other maintenance tasks.  One reason for this is that many of us appreciate the natural world, including not only the flowers and trees but the birds, insects, small mammals and the sometimes miracle of frogs, toads and salamanders.  In preserving the natural areas, we are creating a living collection of life.  As our previous posts Deer and the Web of Life and Deer and the Flowers of Earth have expressed,  burgeoning deer populations are a threat to the entire ecosystem.  This has been shown in study after study nationally, and we have some local studies too.  Deer are explosively fecund and their population increases geometrically, as we explained in Deer and the Numbers Explosion. They don’t give the rest of the living world much of a chance.

A swallowtail butterfly caterpillar in an Ann Arbor backyard

A swallowtail butterfly caterpillar in an Ann Arbor backyard

Our Gardens. People who are not gardeners or who do not maintain a landscape are often dismissive of those who care about plants in their own backyards.  It is hard to express the anguish of losing a cherished plant to those who simply don’t regard this as important.  And the thousands of dollars lost in landscape damage is dismissed by commenters as “rich people worried about their…”  Yet these are heartfelt losses.  And I would also plead that our backyard flowers support a lot of wildlife, beginning with insects (pollinators are in vogue just now; even President Obama is on their side) and birds who love the nectar, the seeds, and the insects that garden flowers provide.

This squash plant has been stripped of all flowers, fruits and growing tips

This squash plant has been stripped of all flowers, fruits and growing tips

DCF 1.0

A previously productive vegetable garden that once fed a family has been occupied by a deer herd

Even more basic is the human need to be able to raise vegetables from one’s own soil (or in a public garden).  The Ann Arbor deer are now affecting community gardens maintained by Project Grow and have caused what I will term as tragic losses to home vegetable gardeners in some locations.  I myself have had to surrender my vegetable garden, though it was of great importance to me.  (My garden blog was almost all about vegetables.)  The pictures shown here were of an extensive vegetable garden on the east side of Ann Arbor that is now in ruins, an occupied territory.  The unsympathetic who suggest “planting resistant plants” haven’t considered that we have selected food plants over millennia to be highly edible, and the deer are happy to participate. When deer attack them, they eat the tender growing parts, the buds, young leaves, developing fruits. They devastate the crop.

Basic safety. In addition to all these problems, it should be noted that these are large animals with sharp hooves, and, in the case of bucks, antlers.  It is not possible to confront them in person.  There are stories which I will not attempt to document here of attacks on pet dogs, intrusions on decks, and other threats to personal territory.

So what are we to do?  It is clear that we need to limit (reduce) the deer population in Ann Arbor.  They are beginning to penetrate even to neighborhoods where they have not been seen until recently.  But they are virtually an occupying force in some areas.  The City Council and Administration have recognized that something must be done.  After a nearly year-long process including much public participation, a staff report recommended a management program which included a lethal cull to be conducted under very restricted conditions.  (NOT hunters in your backyard.)  There was pushback.  A special work session was called in which the Humane Society of the US was given an opportunity to present information about the “nonlethal” approach of using experimental contraception and/or surgical sterilization instead.  The presentation is here.  Now it has been announced that the City Council will consider a resolution on August 17, 2015.  The method of limitation of the deer population that will be proposed has not been announced.  There will also be a public hearing at that meeting.  Any Ann Arbor resident may speak on this topic without signing up ahead of time.  The actual text of the legislation will by that time be available on LegistarUPDATE: Here is the text of the resolution as amended.  The Council voted 8-1 to conduct a lethal cull in winter 2016. Mayor Christopher Taylor opposed this. The resolution was amended to indicate that the City would also cooperate with a study of sterilization or contraception if practicable.

Soon we will know what our City will do to address this real and present problem of excess deer population in Ann Arbor.

UPDATE, January 2016: Ann Arbor is now conducting a lethal cull of 100 deer in 14 city parks.  City Council passed several enabling resolutions, listed here.

ADDENDUM: One of the best examples of a deer management plan in our area is that practised by the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.  This organization manages many significant open spaces throughout SE Michigan.  They long ago recognized the importance of deer to their overall management of these areas.  Here is their latest Huron Clinton Deer Plan (July 2015).

SECOND ADDENDUM: Local author and journalist Margaret Leary has compiled a summary of deer-vehicle crashes over the last 10 years. She also calculated the percentage of vehicle crashes related to deer.  Sure enough, the percentage has increased over the time period.

dvc data

THIRD ADDENDUM: Data obtained by the former editor of the Ann Arbor Chronicle (Dave Askins) indicates that the number of deer-vehicle crashes has shot up dramatically in the last year, to 88 total reported in Ann Arbor.

Deer-vehicle crashes in Ann Arbor 2005-2015

Deer-vehicle crashes in Ann Arbor 2005-2015

Deer and the Flowers of the Earth

May 31, 2015
Hepatica acutiloba (photo by R.W. Smith) Spring, beech-maple forests.

Hepatica acutiloba (photo by R.W. Smith) Spring, beech-maple forests.

The land speaks in flowers.    

— Shawn Severance

Wildflowers are a major source of delight in a stroll through natural areas.  Indeed, a reason many of us choose to “take a stroll in the woods” is that a season of flowers has arrived.

Jeffersonia diphylla (Twinleaf). Early spring, rich forest. Photo by C. Peirce.

Jeffersonia diphylla (Twinleaf). Early spring, rich forest. Photo by C. Peirce.

But flowers have a much more important role in nature than to provide us a momentary pleasure. The beauty and scents are part of a pollination strategy for seed production.  Some flowers are pollinated by visiting butterflies, some by bees, and some by flies.  Night-blooming flowers are pollinated by moths. Tubular red flowers are often pollinated by hummingbirds.  All this flower sex makes for an important source of food for the pollinators.

Mitella diphylla (Bishop's Cap), spring, rich forest. Photo by C. Peirce.

Mitella diphylla (Bishop’s Cap), spring, rich forest. Photo by C. Peirce.

Trillium flexipes (Drooping Trillium) Spring, rich forest. Photo by Ann Arbor Natural Preservation

Yes, we are talking again about the food web, or as we have called it, the web of life.  Not only do the flowers feed their pollinators, but the fruits and seeds that the flowers produce are often important food sources for small mammals and birds.  The insects fed by flowers in turn are important in the diet of frogs and toads, snakes, and birds. The amphibians, birds and small mammals are the prey for raptors (birds) and sometimes larger mammals.  But it begins with the flowers.

The Impact of Deer on the Natural Landscape

Campanula americana, photo by Ann Arbor Natural Preservation.  Summer, openings in deciduous forest.

Campanula americana, photo by Ann Arbor Natural Preservation. Summer, openings in deciduous forest.

Lysimachia terrestris (Swamp-candles), photo by R.W. Smith. Mid-summer, marshes and fens.

Lysimachia terrestris (Swamp-candles), photo by R.W. Smith. Mid-summer, marshes and fens.

Those of us who love the natural world often see a wild place as a whole – the trees, the smaller plants, the small and larger mammals, the birds, the insects.  The concept of the ecosystem is fundamental to ecology; all the parts fit together, including the inanimate physical setting.  The food web is an integral part of that ecosystem and helps define the relationships within it.  But because the white-tailed deer is increasing out of bounds and is consuming a far greater proportion of the food resources in local ecosystems, they cause a degradation of the whole, making it less supportive of all the other living beings in it, and ultimately of the deer themselves (the carrying capacity is exceeded).

Aster laevis (Smooth Aster) fall, dry wood edges, prairies. Photo by B.S. Walters.

Aster laevis (Smooth Aster) fall, dry wood edges, prairies. Photo by B.S. Walters.

The problem is that deer have very demanding nutritional requirements.  They need approximately seven pounds of high-quality food a day (amounts will vary according to life cycle state).  As this study from the University of Missouri extension explains,  the diet needs to be relatively high in protein (15-20%), especially during antler formation and lactation.  They don’t get by on nibbling leaves or grazing on grass.   They eat tender buds and rapidly growing tips of plants, because that is where the protein is.  Their browsing can take out whole stands of saplings and young herbaceous plants (called forbs). One of the general effects of deer overbrowsing is the loss of both the numbers of plant species (diversity) and of the numbers of the plants themselves.  It is said that the quality of the plant community has declined. As shown in this long-term study from Wisconsin (overview) (scholarly paper) an area browsed by deer is likely to contain mostly ferns (not eaten by deer), grasses and sedges, and some non-native or invasive plants.   Even the species of plants that did seem able to co-exist with the deer were shorter and smaller. Tree regeneration was severely limited (seedlings did not survive).

Carex prasina (Drooping sedge), photo by A. A. Reznicek. Spring, wet deciduous woods.

Carex prasina (Drooping sedge), photo by A. A. Reznicek. Spring, wet deciduous woods. (Wind pollinated)

An alarming observation that the Wisconsin researchers made was to point out that many or most of the surviving plants employ “abiotic” pollination. This is usually wind-pollinated (grasses and sedges are wind-pollinated, as are trees, and ferns produce windborne spores).  They speculated that this could be because of loss of the animal pollinators “by altering the abundance and quality of plant food resources and habitat available to pollinators and songbirds”.  A circular causation here – if a plant species becomes too sparse, it may be difficult for pollen from another plant to reach it, especially if the pollinator is not present, partly because there weren’t enough flowers to feed the pollinator, so its population would decline…   But note that the nutritional value of the surviving vegetation to deer is also limited.

The language of flowers

So in conclusion, the absence of flowers is both an early indication of deer overabundance and an injury to the ecosystem resulting from it.  Aldo Leopold had a strong empathy for ecosystems and nearly personalized them in his concept of “the land”.  As we reviewed earlier,  he spoke of an ethic in which the land (the whole community of living things) was to be loved and respected.  If we view the entire community as an entity to be preserved, we should note this symptom (of lost flowers) with concern.  Washtenaw County Parks naturalist Shawn Severance, who has been involved for some years with studying the natural plant communities of Washtenaw County parks and natural areas, said it this way:  “The land speaks in flowers.”    Yes, and it is trying to tell us something.

Photographs of flowers are by permission of the photographers and of  University Michigan Herbarium.  They should not be copied without permission (ask at   All species shown here were found at Ann Arbor’s Bird Hills Nature Area at some time in the past and have a high conservation coefficient (are considered high-value species).

UPDATE: As of November, 2019, the City of Ann Arbor deer management program is up for reauthorization. This will be the 5th year. A major objective of this program has been the protection of plants in our natural areas. Happily, the City has contracted with Jacqueline Courteau, an independent consultant (NatureWrite, LLC) who is a specialist in deer-vegetation interaction. She has been assessing the levels of deer browse for some years. Her latest study has just been made available on the City’s site. It is Deer Browse Study Key Metrics 2018 and contains data from bioassays Courteau conducted for several years. She used both red oak seedlings (since oak is a favorite browse of deer) and three wildflower species, two goldenrods (Solidago caesia, bluestem goldenrod; Solidago flexicaulis, zigzag goldenrod); and  heart-leaved aster (Symphotrichum cordifolium).  She also used fenced and unfenced plots to assess the condition of Trillium grandiflorum, one of our best-loved spring wildflowers and a known deer browse indicator. Her conclusions are somewhat alarming for us flower lovers. She found that deer seemed to prefer wildflowers to oak seedlings.

These browse levels suggest that, overall, deer prefer wildflowers, and will eat a higher proportion of wildflower plants than of oak seedlings—providing evidence that, in Ann Arbor sites, oaks are of lower preference to deer, whatever their palatability rating. Because deer browse levels on oaks are lower than on wildflowers, using oak seedlings as an indicator of deer impacts will generally underestimate damage to wildflowers overall.

The summary results are shown in a handout Deer Impact Final Summary 2018-19-1 for a talk to be given at the UM Herbarium. Here is the summary graphic.


Note that for each test species, the outline is filled with color in proportion to the amount browsed. Trillium is treated slightly differently; most reports use a pink color to indicate the flower, but in Mary Beth Doyle Park the green color indicates the number of plants.

All in all, these studies indicate that the deer management program has lessened the pressure on the native vegetation, but it is still severe. We are not out of the “woods” yet.

Deer and the Web of Life

March 26, 2015

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

As we said at the very beginning, much of the controversy surrounding the solution to Ann Arbor’s deer problem is based on values.  One set of values that is crucial to this question is how one views the importance of the natural world, and how one judges its components.  There are some major philosophical and functional questions here, and often they are not examined so much as taken for granted.

Does “nature” have an inherent value, or is it only valuable in economic terms and its usefulness to humans?

Is there a moral basis for preserving wilderness, or is it to be judged solely on recreational use and conservation of certain resources (lumber) for future exploitation?

Are some species more worthy than others?  Or is every species deserving of protection?

These questions first emerged in America toward the end of the 19th century, as the expansion of civilization across the continent was drawing to its finish. President Grant signed some of the first legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park.  (The second national park was Mackinac National Park in Michigan.) John Muir, who died in 1914, was a major leader in the preservation of wilderness and conservation of wild species and the founder of the Sierra Club.  He was influential in Theodore Roosevelt’s moves to strengthen and expand National Parks.  He saw natural areas as having a transcendent value, a source of spiritual inspiration, rather than as treasures to be exploited. The questions are still relevant today, as every fight between mining operations, lumber interests, developers or ranchers and conservationists demonstrates.  (Note the recent battle over the fate of wolves in Michigan.) Aldo Leopold, who was most active during the first half of the 20th Century, furthered the discussion with his early work on ecology.  We quoted his careful work on “deer irruptions” previously.  Leopold brought some rigor and analysis to the understanding of how wild systems work, but he also enunciated a philosophical position which he called the “land ethic”.  He had a strong empathy for all parts of the natural system, beginning with the soil and incorporating the plants and the animals.  In the foreword to his landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, (1949) he says,

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

Unfortunately (from my perspective), that is an ethic that is not universally shared.  Even many supporters of maintaining biological diversity often justify it on an utilitarian basis, e.g. “there might be a new antibiotic or a cure for cancer there”.  For Leopold, and for me, every part of the natural community (what he calls the “land”) is of value in itself. There is an aesthetic but also a reverence for all these members of the natural community and the beautiful fabric that they weave.

Favored Species

But of course any of us do discriminate among species.  When I was a child, I couldn’t figure out why God created the mosquito or the rattlesnake.  Now I ruthlessly weed out “invasive” plants (usually plants that are not native to our area and are weedy in behavior, crowding out other plants).  I certainly favor songbirds over starlings (another invasive).  But if we care about the natural world, we recognize that most species, especially those native to the community, have a place in the “web of life”, where there are many dependencies.  Even the less glamorous deserve some measure of respect. What has been distressing in the current discussion about deer is that some people evidently do place the welfare of individual deer above that of all the rest of the natural world.  In the A2 Open City Hall survey (we summarized it here) the question was asked,

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

to which 26% of respondents answered “Yes”.  The question does not ask about birds, plants, reptiles or amphibians, much less invertebrates like insects.

A Question of Balance

A simplified food web illustration. Arrows point to the one who eats.

A simplified food web illustration. Arrows point to the one who eats.

The notion of the “balance of nature”, in which the various members of a native community interact with each other to form a more or less stable condition, is based on the concept of the food web.  Plants form the basis of several food chains (combined in the web) in which energy is captured by photosynthesis and passed along from animal to animal, where prey animals are ultimately consumed by predators.  (Prey animals may be herbivores, omnivores or carnivores.)  Predator-prey relationships exist at each step (see our explanation), including between herbivores and plants.  This means that an excess of any predator can depress the ability of critical parts of the food web to supply the needs of the rest of the web. As we noted previously, without a predator (and you’ll notice the wildcat is missing in this web), deer will employ their tremendous reproductive capability to exceed the ability of the plants in their community to support them.  But the rest of the food web suffers, too.  This has been especially evident in the forests of North America.  A post originating from the august Nature Conservancy states,

In our opinion, no other threat to forested habitats (than the white-tailed deer) is greater at this point in timenot lack of fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change.

Think about it.  Most deer, even those in our luxury setting, are hungry all the time.  They need a high-quality diet.  Estimates of how much vary, but about seven pounds a day seems fairly conservative.  And they want it to be high in protein and low in toxic compounds.  They are not grazers of grass, but nibblers of buds and tender young foliage.  In fact, much of what they eat is what we would seek out if we had to live in the wild and had no animals to eat.  Buds, fruit, tender growth, nuts, acorns, even mushrooms.  They have also been observed to eat baby birds.  (Protein is hard to come by.)  They go through a habitat relentlessly, scooping up everything edible – by their standards. There are numerous studies of how deer have affected the Northern forests.  I like this one from Wisconsin.  It is based on rigorous studies using exclosures and plant assessment techniques. From the article:

Deer account for at least 40 percent of the change seen in the forests over the past half-century or so. “The study links microcosm to macrocosm. We have exclosures in the same region where we have documented long-term changes in the plant community over the past 50 years. These are giving us the same message.”

Some previously common plant species (trees and shrubs) have become so rare that they are no longer included in the assessment studies.

A Formidable Influence

Aldo Leopold killed a wolf early in his career and then regretted it.  In the fires of the eyes of the dying wolf, he saw a truth.  He realized that without the wolf, the mountain where it lived would suffer.

“I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain…have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed…every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.  Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new set of pruning shears and forbidden Him all other exercise…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”

Deer are extremely adaptive, have a high reproductive capability and an unending appetite.  They are a very old species on this continent.  In her recent book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert relates how the introduction of humans to the North American continent finished off many large mammals (megafauna), including mammoths.   But “white-tailed deer have a relatively high reproductive rate and probably remained plentiful even as the number of mammoths dropped.”  This is referring to the likelihood that deer were able to supply meat to the new predator on the continent and yet survive and prosper.  Unfortunately, we are no longer filling our role as the top predator in the food web.  The balance of nature is off kilter.  I don’t think that we want to bring back the wolves in sufficient numbers to keep them in check. For the sake of the deer as well as all the other species dependent on the wilderness,  we need to fill our place in the natural order.

UPDATE:  An important study of the effects of deer in an Ann Arbor natural area has now been released.   The study, White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browse damage in Ann Arbor, Michigan Bird Hills Nature Area, Winter 2015,  is by ecologist (and specialist in deer/vegetation interactions) Jacqueline Courteau and her independent study student at the University of Michigan, Moriah Young; it is based on data collected in February through April 2015.  (The authors have released the study for use and quotation, but it is not yet published in a journal.)

The study finds significant damage in tree saplings and shrubs.

This survey of 142 tree saplings (less than 2 meters tall) and shrubs in Bird Hills Nature Area shows that 80% have been browsed by deer, and 51% have half or more branches browsed. This level of browsing could interfere with forest regeneration and diminish the flowers and fruit available for birds, butterflies, and bees.

The study uses direct, painstaking counts of deer browse on specific woody species.

50%.” width=”450″ height=”291″ /> Figure 2 of Courteau and Young, 2015. Note the high numbers of individual trees and shrub browsed >50%.

The discussion also makes an important point about deer population counts.  As it notes,

A small population of deer that browse repeatedly in a small area due to barriers (roads, fences, etc.) or because of the lack of predators may damage vegetation as much as a larger population that ranges more widely.

 There are numerous figures and tables with specifics about the sampling areas.

SECOND UPDATE: Chuck Warpehoski, a council member from Ann Arbor’s Fifth Ward, has written an excellent essay on why he voted to control the local deer population by means of a lethal cull.   It highlights the damage to the ecosystem in natural areas. Deer Herd Management: A vote for the ecosystem as a whole