Ann Arbor’s deer cull:
‘A divergence in values’
Things got ugly when the city planned to kill 100 deer
By Margaret A. Leary
The author, Margaret A. Leary, retired in 2011 as director of the University of Michigan Law Library. She has researched and written about white-tailed deer in Ann Arbor since 2011, and believes that Ann Arbor has too many deer and that a cull is the best solution. She was also a member of the Ann Arbor Planning Commission from 1994 to 2003, and believes the city should liberalize its accessory apartment ordinance.
Ann Arbor is struggling through a “nature war.” White-tailed deer have invaded yards and natural areas throughout the city. In response, and in spite of protests led by the Humane Society of Huron Valley, the City Council voted on Nov. 5 to hire sharpshooters to kill 100 of the city’s deer.
But that didn’t mark the end of the emotional two-year process. Cull opponents have continued to comment at council meetings, tried to recall a councilmember, asked the Department of Natural Resources to deny the city’s request for a cull permit and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the cull.
Meanwhile, the debate about deer has evolved into one over the city’s values. Is Ann Arbor changing from a peace-loving, gun-shy city to one of violence and bloodshed, as the Humane Society of Huron Valley argues? Or is this simply an intelligent community that knows how to find, and is comfortable relying on, facts to make hard decisions?
White-tailed deer have bounced back since they were nearly wiped out by unregulated hunting in the 19th century, according to the DNR. In southern Michigan, settlers’ removal of cover, and their unregulated personal and commercial hunting, removed most deer by 1870.
Michigan began “deer management” in 1895, with a law establishing a deer hunting season and limiting the number of deer that could be taken. There are more deer now in Michigan and the U.S. than before the Europeans arrived — more than 25 million in the U.S, according to Cornell University’s 2014 deer study.
DNR’s stated management goals are to ensure enough deer for the public to enjoy, whether by watching or hunting, but not so many as to damage the ecosystem, agriculture or public health and safety. Outside of cities and suburbs, DNR manages the deer population with hunting.
The current excess of deer in southern Michigan has four causes:
• Every year, fewer people hunt;
• Every year, each hunter takes fewer deer;
• Deer have few if any predators; and
• Deer are multiplying faster than ever, feasting on crops, native trees and shrubs in natural areas, and on the nutritious landscaping that has replaced less food-filled woods.
The state hunting system does not extend to urban and suburban areas, so each city has to find its own remedy, usually a cull.
The two-year process
In May 2014, the City Council directed Administrator Steve Powers to develop a deer plan with help from community partners and the DNR. The council expressed concerns about ecological balance in natural areas, resident reports of deer damage to landscaping and deer-borne diseases.
In August, Powers reported the need to create a community-endorsed Deer Management Plan, with DNR-approved options.
After a year-long process, Sumedh Bahl, director of community services for the city, sent the four-year Deer Management Plan to council on May 15, 2015. Bahl’s report laid out the facts: most citizens who responded to an online survey and attended three public meetings favored lethal methods of removal; and a large majority favored a ban on feeding deer (also enacted this fall) and management of roadside vegetation so that drivers could more easily see deer — hopefully reducing deer-vehicle collisions — and education of residents about deer-resistant landscaping.
• Chronology of the deer-cull decision
The staff report described the city’s values of environmental consciousness and recognized that killing deer would challenge “a core value” of many Ann Arbor residents “who believe that humans are responsible for the population increase due to habitat destruction.” In contrast, the report said, other Ann Arborites have “serious concern about the destruction of the city’s natural areas by deer. Songbirds, oak trees, trillium, butterflies and many other species suffer or even disappear when deer overwhelm an urban area.”
On Aug. 17, 2015, the council approved the four-year Deer Management Plan, which includes culls on city property beginning winter 2016. The council completed the plan when it voted on Nov. 5 to suspend the prohibition on firearms during the cull, and to hire U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters to do the work.
Cull opponents seemed to have no organized voice until after the May 2015 report went to the council. On Jan. 8, 2015, Bahl had emailed HSHV an invitation “to develop a plan for reducing deer population through an immuno-contraceptive process and to present a summary of the plan” at a public meeting in February. Tanya Hilgendorf, HSHV’s CEO and president, emailed Bahl the next day, writing that HSHV does not have the experience or resources “to create a truly implementable project proposal.” Hilgendorf recommended the Humane Society of the United States as a resource.
Also in January 2015, Bahl invited the pro-cull Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance to present a plan for a managed cull. Maurita Holland and Bernie Banet, WC4EB leaders, made a presentation at a February public meeting and submitted a 35-page deer management plan to the city on April 15. The final city staff report included WC4EB’s document as an appendix. The group had already created a website, wc4eb.org, with hundreds of documents and an email group to share news articles. The group also solicited cull support from other groups, such as the Michigan Botanical Society and Audubon Society.
Once the staff report recommending a cull had gone to council on May 15, HSHV started fully pushing back, inviting HSUS’ biologist Stephanie Boyles Griffin to make a presentation on fertility control, at HSHV on May 20.
Hilgendorf took an aggressive stance against the cull before an audience of about 150 in Rackham Auditorium on Dec. 15, 2015. She labeled the threat to natural areas “the ‘green scare’ promoted by the ‘invasion biologists’ and landscapers.” To make her point, she said, “That other group hired a scientist, who of course found browse damage.”
She was referring to ecologist Jacqueline Courteau, who developed a report that found severe deer damage in Ann Arbor’s Bird Hills Park. After Hilgendorf mentioned her at Rackham, Courteau wrote an email on Dec. 29 saying she received no funding from anyone and her “study was conducted as an independent academic inquiry by an undergraduate student … under my supervision and under the aegis of” the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment.
The next day, Hilgendorf emailed, “We have seen no evidence of … true deer overpopulation.” Killing may seem an easy answer, she wrote, “but it isn’t effective and violence should never be our first and only solution.”
Hilgendorf also wrote in BRIDGE magazine that there were only 168 deer in town and a cull would cost $140,000 per year. (The flyovers indeed spotted 168 deer, but cull proponents claim that could have missed 90 percent of them.) She also said the cull was eroding community trust and cohesion.
Banet, a founder of WC4EB, counters that any erosion in trust “is primarily the result of the aggressively disseminated misrepresentations by animal rights advocates, not the city of Ann Arbor’s reasoned and deliberate decisionmaking process.”
The HSHV website added information about the cull, alternatives and links to websites of other organizations with whom it was cooperating to oppose the cull. Foremost among them is HSUS, from which HSHV is careful to distinguish itself. Unlike HSHV and other local humane societies, HSUS’ mission is not to support shelters, but rather to confront “national and international problems facing animals, which local shelters don’t have the reach or the resources to take on.” HSUS has conducted experiments with non-lethal fertility control, which Michigan chapter President Jill Fritz has promoted at public meetings, without offering specifics about methods, costs or effectiveness.
In July, HSUS gave a presentation and answered the City Council’s questions, but said it had never undertaken a project as large as Ann Arbor’s, and that none of HSUS’ methods had DNR approval. Nevertheless, the council’s final resolution included asking staff to explore non-lethal methods with HSUS in the future.
The Michigan Political Action Committee for Animals joined HSHV to oppose the cull. MiPACA endorsed Sally Hart Petersen, who ran for the City Council in November against incumbent Jane Lumm in Ward 2. Lumm, whose ward includes a particularly high number of deer, led the council’s deer management effort. Lumm won handily, 65 percent to 35 percent.
• How opposition to a granny-flat proposal went much differently
MiPACA also wrote a letter to the council on Aug. 17, 2015, promising to join HSHV in legal challenges to the cull. So far, there’s been no legal action from either group.
The Global Conservation Group describes itself as “Wisconsin’s largest animal advocacy organization.” It created www.AnnArborCruelty.com about the cull and in December its Facebook page told of a “Campaign against a Michigan city (Ann Arbor) for their plans to slaughter 100 deer this winter.” No further details appear on the website.
Near summer’s end, Sabra Sanzotta of Ann Arbor created SaveTheDeer.info, and Facebook page, Save The Deer Ann Arbor, “a nonprofit political action committee founded to Stop the Shoot.” Sanzotta also established a GoFundMe crowdfunding site to collect money to fight the cull. As of mid-January, 77 people had contributed $7,280 toward the $20,000 goal to “hire Barry Powers of Bloomfield Hills who would submit a lawsuit.”
On Dec. 31, a new group, Ann Arbor Residents for Public Safety, headed by Sanzotta, filed a lawsuit in Eastern District Federal Court to enjoin the cull. On Jan. 11, the court refused to enjoin the cull. Sanzotta withdrew that suit and said she would file one in state court.
On Dec. 1, Sanzotta filed a petition to recall Councilmember Kirk Westphal, a Democrat from Ward 1, because he voted for the cull, and “a deer ‘cull’ killing is not supported by scientific evidence to control deer population.”
The Washtenaw Elections Commission dismissed the petition for failure to be “clear” and “factual.” Christopher Dick, U-M professor of ecology, had provided evidence to the Election Commission that Sanzotta’s claim was “completely untrue,” citing “hundreds of scientific papers on deer overabundance and the use of culling to regulate deer populations.” Sanzotta did not reply to requests for comment.
In late fall, Friends of Ann Arbor Wildlife in Nature appeared. In November, FAAWN members Nirmala Hanke and Lisa Abrams said they opposed the deer cull and were “taking action consistent with their spiritual enlightenment.” In a December phone call, Abrams said her group did not support the attempt to recall Westphal.
The City Council approved spending $20,000 in 2015 to hire a consultant to assist staff with the public process part of the Deer Management Plan. There were also two aerial surveys in 2015 — with each flyover costing $3,000, according to Lumm. City staff did the rest of the work.
The city’s 2016 budget includes $90,000 for deer management, with a plan to spend $20,000 in 2017. In 2015, the council approved spending $35,000 on the USDA sharpshooters. Other expenses could include monitoring natural areas, more aerial surveys and working with HSUS on non-lethal methods.
In Bloomington, Ind., a university community similar to Ann Arbor, the City Council passed a cull resolution in 2014, but Mayor Mark Kruzan vetoed it because of opposition from animal rights advocates. The council overrode the veto and the cull was set for winter 2015. However, the winter was mild, and food — especially acorns — unusually abundant. Sharpshooters’ thought it unlikely deer would go to their bait, and on their advice the city cancelled the cull and the contract ran out. Kruzan, whose term ended Dec. 31, declared he would not sign another contract. New Mayor John Hamilton mentioned deer only once in his inaugural address on Jan. 1, as one item in a long list of challenges facing the city.
Vassar College began culling deer in 2010, and people opposed to the process filed lawsuits in 2012 and 2014. Both failed. In January 2016, in front of only two dozen protesters, Vassar announced that it would conduct its fourth cull.
similar fervor, different result