Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ category

Deer and the Community Conversation

February 16, 2015
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

January 31, 2015


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 results are summarized and analyzed in this report on Deer Management Recommendations issued in May 2015.  They break the city into “two cities”, lumping Wards 1 and 2 together, and Wards 3, 4, 5 as a second area supposedly less affected by 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

December 17, 2014

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?

December 15, 2014

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

December 3, 2014

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?



The Value of Historic Preservation for Ann Arbor

June 12, 2012

One of the strengths of Ann Arbor as a community is its active historic preservation infrastructure.  Here is what the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance has to say about that (from a recently published brochure, attached here with permission).

Vibrant downtown streets and lively neighborhoods, laced with a rich diversity of 19th and 20th century historic buildings, provide the backdrop to the sense of place Ann Arborites love and the quality of life they enjoy.

Since 1975, when Ann Arbor’s city council declared historic preservation a “public purpose,” citizens have helped create historic districts and advocated for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures in commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The brochure outlines details of the Historic District Commission (HDC) process.  The city currently has 14 historic districts.

Ann Arbor Historic Districts, from the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance brochure. Click for a larger image.

In recent years, historic preservation has become controversial, as it has come up against development pressures.  While historic preservation does not prevent development, it institutes a review process and also makes demolition of structures in a district more difficult.

The importance of historic preservation to maintaining the integrity of areas with historic structures was never so apparent as recently, with the tragic chain of events leading to the destruction of seven historic houses in one of our city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The value of these Central Area neighborhoods to developers is a strong incentive.

As we outlined in detail in our previous post,  Heritage City Place Row, there are many community-wide reasons to maintain such structures.  One is, simply, economics.  There are more and more discussions of “placemaking” and the importance of “quality of life” to attracting “talent”, young professionals who will enrich us all by joining new start-up enterprises.   The tourism industry also recognizes the importance of historic areas in attracting visitors.  Here’s what we said about that in our previous post:

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Unfortunately, the saga of City Place shows that sometimes the story just doesn’t end well.  The City Council failed on several attempts to establish a historic district for the area. The seven contiguous historic houses on South Fifth Avenue just south of William were demolished and two large apartment buildings that will probably house mostly students are now under construction.  Almost the entire block of that historic neighborhood has been replaced. (Photos of the seven demolished houses are on the previous post.)

This is now the uninspiring view along most of the first block of S. Fifth.

A view down S. Fifth showing the two remaining houses on the block.

One reason the developer was able to execute this so-called “by right” development was that he was able to assemble the seven contiguous lots into one lot for the purposes of producing a site plan.  Under provisions of the current R4C zoning, this development met most of the setback and other requirements.  (Actually, the neighborhood submitted an appeal [long text here] to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which for some reason failed even to consider it.)

Now we may be able to make changes in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance that would prevent a similar tragedy.  As reported by, the City Council has now received the report of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Advisory Committee.  (Download report here.)  We’ll have to hope that Council approves the changes in the zoning ordinance recommended by this citizen committee.    It is important to safeguard our Central Area neighborhoods, and the others where R4C zoning exists.

But if we are to continue protection of historic structures, and to obtain the benefits of historic preservation, citizens as well as council members must support the work of the Historic District Commission as well.  Their decisions have sometimes been controversial, only because the reasoning behind their guidelines is often not intuitive to some people.  (The recent kerfuffle over a rail fence on the Old West Side is an example.)  Their faithful monitoring of our historic districts has resulted in a better community for all of us.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, send an email to

New Local Food Page

March 14, 2012

Here are some new ideas.  Let’s grow our own food or buy it locally, preferably from small farmers and artisans, join a food cooperative, bake our own bread, learn how to cook without a half pound of meat per person, use a lot of fresh vegetables, make our own yogurt, cheese, pickles, jam, use lots of seasonings, often with ethnic origins, to make freshly prepared simple food delicious.

Oh whoops.  Those aren’t new.  That was my experience in the 1970s as a graduate student in Wisconsin.  We called it “pure food” or “natural food” then (the idea of “organic” was just getting wound up).  I read “Diet for a Small Planet,” spent some time volunteering with a group of people who formed a food coop (they drove a rickety truck to Chicago once a week to buy actual fresh vegetables, and got bottled milk from a local dairy), started a vegetable garden in a vacant lot behind my apartment, traveled to a small rural grocery to buy local cheese and meat, patronized farm stands whenever I could find them (Madison didn’t start a farmers’ market until about 1976), baked the bread, made the yogurt, the whole thing.  It felt real.  It felt organic in the classical sense.  We ate well on not much money.

So I was delighted to learn that all this was starting up again here in Ann Arbor.  Some will say it never quite went away, but it has a new lease on life with a new generation (and with the help of the previous ones; Al Connor, who helped start the People’s Food Coop in Ann Arbor, is still working on food policy).  I did some looking around in 2007 and wrote an article on the subject for the Ann Arbor Observer, “Meet the Locavores“.  Since then the Ann Arbor local food universe has expanded mightily.

I’ve revised and updated the page I have maintained on this subject, and The Local Food Page has a few useful links.  I’ll try to make it more comprehensive in the future.

Meanwhile, note that the Local Food Summit is on April 2 this year.  Better sign up if you plan to go.