Opinion: HSHV spreads false info about A2 deer

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White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer | U.S. Department of Agriculture


The Humane Society of Huron Valley has consistently provided false information about Ann Arbor’s deer management plan. This misinformation: 

  • Breeds conflict that would not exist if the HSHV recognized accepted research about deer management; 
  • Damages our local democracy, for as our elected officials struggle with a complex problem, they must also deal with the falsehoods;
  • Puts council through unnecessary hours of listening to a relatively few protesters, many of whom are not local residents and repeat the bad facts; and 
  • Impedes the contractor’s efforts and adds to the city’s expense.


The city’s contractor, White Buffalo, just completed surgical sterilization of 54 does in areas where deer are overabundant, and removed 96 deer from parks and natural areas via sharpshooters. 

This is the second year of the city’s four-year deer management plan. This year the city was joined by the University of Michigan, which is interested in restoring the severely damaged Nichols Arboretum to its primary purpose: a park of special trees and plantings for study and research. The Michigan Daily editors support the cull.

Meanwhile, several groups oppose the cull, the sterilization program or both. The groups include FAAWN, A2 Residents for Non-lethal Deer Management and A2 Residents for Public Safety. 

The person most quoted, however, is not from those groups, but is Tanya Hilgendorf, executive director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley, with its website StoptheShoot.org

Response from HSHV

Here are recent statements from the HSHV website and my responses.

“Is there a problem? A passionate group of residents reported landscaping damage, and concerns with vehicle-deer collisions and Lyme disease.”

It is true: many complain about landscape damage, fear of colliding with a deer and dread Lyme disease. In addition, studies by biologist Jacqueline Courteau for the city show significant damage to Bird Hills Park and 10 other parks,  and there’s similar damage in the county’s Leonard Preserve. Deer-vehicle collisions have tripled in Ann Arbor between 2004 and 2015, while all crashes have gone up only 6 percent, according to the Michigan State Police. 

Data shows Washtenaw County is currently not at risk for Lyme disease transmission, the city reports no city property has had vegetation damage by deer, and Ann Arbor has only 3 to 6 deer per square mile when the DNR has recommended 24-28 deer/square mile in Washtenaw County). But some individuals are frustrated by deer eating their gardens and landscaping.”

“County not at risk for Lyme disease. The state Health Department reports that Lyme disease is present in Washtenaw County. In its Michigan Emerging Diseases 2016 website, Washtenaw County, which was white (no Lyme disease) for many years, turned pink (threatened) in 2015 and became bright red in 2016 (Lyme is present).

“No city property damaged by deer.” Courteau’s studies of Bird Hills and 10 other city-owned parks show deer damage, threatening the regeneration of beloved Bird Hills woods and in the other areas, including the U-M Arboretum.

“The DNR recommends 24-28 deer per square mile in Washtenaw County.” True, but that number is for the rural areas of the county, most of its 722 square miles, and is for purposes of determining the number and type of hunting licenses for this “deer management unit.” All experts recommend much lower numbers (generally five to 10) in urban and suburban areas.

“Ann Arbor has only 3 to 6 deer per square mile.” There are many more deer than that in Ann Arbor. Using deer-vehicle crashes, or the DNR’s estimate of deer per square mile in Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor has 1,000 to 2,000 deer, roughly 35-70 per square mile. In wards 1 and 2, where the river and shade trees create habitat deer favor, the herds are active and prevalent. The deer expert who heads White Buffalo, the city’s contractor this year, believes deer are overabundant in Ann Arbor, and so does the DNR, which required proof of overabundance before issuing a permit. Perhaps the HSHV number comes from the number spotted in aerial surveys, (168 in 2015, 202 in 2016), but these surveys are not designed to count all deer (which is impossible). They are designed only to be indicia of growth or decline in the deer population.

“Why a cull? Some communities hire cullers to kill deer to reduce the deer population. The problem is, while these culls do initially decrease the number of deer, the population rebounds and we just have to keep killing. (Jackson is on their 9th straight year of culling deer.)” It is true that culling must be repeated if conditions remain the same, because deer, evolved to be prey, grow and reproduce rapidly, doubling in population every two years. This is not a “rebound.” And it does not mean culls have to be annual forever. However, once the population is reduced enough, culling may not need to be annual. Jackson decided a cull was not needed in 2017. Sterilization would also have to continue until at least 95 percent of the population is sterilized and carefully monitored. Culling is done not out of hatred of deer, but out of concern for plants, shrubs and trees and the web of life that is totally dependent on them. 

“If we want to be proactive in stemming the deer population, there are numerous safe, nonlethal methods that have been successful in other communities.” The statement is simply false. The only “safe, non-lethal method” is surgical sterilization. There are no others. The best study proving this is from Cornell University.

The HSHV website with this statement contains a link to the following suggestions:

  • “Stop feeding the deer. Already illegal in Ann Arbor. 
  • “Use humane barriers to keep deer in their place.” None of the types of fencing mentioned work; deer are strong and agile, and can jump over or knock away any of the barriers now available for Ann Arbor residents. Additionally, many areas of Ann Arbor have restrictive covenants that limit fencing.
  • “Plant deer-resistant plants.” No plant is resistant to a hungry deer, even plants that damage their intestines. As deer are increasingly overabundant in urban areas, the pressure for food increases and deer are forced to eat vegetation such as grass, holly, white pine, spruce and other plants that their stomachs are not adapted to digest and can cause their mouths to bleed.
  • “Get a dog – or two. In the city, dogs must be on a leash, which diminishes their ability to frighten deer, and few dogs are kept outdoors 24 hours a day. Also, anxious deer will kick a dog that threatens them. Most dogs cannot survive an attack by four cloven hooves backed by 150 muscular pounds.
  • “Use smart road signs and clear roadside brush.” (Presumably to minimize deer-vehicle collisions.). Even a slow-moving car can be hit by deer, as Council member Kirk Westphal’s family learned recently. Removing brush makes it easier for drivers to see deer, but just speeds up the deer. And signs mean little to deer.

“How you can help: Whether you’re worried about the safety of sharpshooters in our city, don’t want taxpayer money wasted on this, appreciate deer in our city, practice non-violence, don’t see a problem or simply know there are better ways to handle this, please join us and let your voice be heard.”

“Worried about the safety of sharpshooters in our city.” We all have fears, but there is no reason to fear sharpshooters who are after deer. There is zero evidence of any harm to people, pets or the sharpshooters themselves. They take extreme precautions, are highly trained and experienced, and will not shoot if they have any doubt.

“Don’t want taxpayer money wasted on this.” Ann Arborites pay a lot of money ($1.4-$5.8 million a year, depending on what you count) to acquire and maintain our parks and natural areas, and that investment deserves protection and care just as our roads and schools do. Paying $100,000 to $250,000 to protect those areas is not a “waste.” It is a prudent exercise of the City Council’s fiduciary duty.

“Appreciate deer in our city.” One can appreciate deer yet agree they are overabundant. True appreciation of deer would recognize the good and bad about deer, weigh the needs of other animals and plants and take steps to prevent the deer eventually starving, acquiring chronic wasting disease, epizootic hemorrhagic disease or becoming weak and succumbing to the fangs of a predator.

“Practice non-violence.” Consider the violence done by deer to ecological balance, and whether the principle of non-violence should apply to only one species. In the end, of course, this is a personal decision.

“Don’t see a problem.” Perhaps cull opponents could read the science and talk to people who feel the cull is appropriate, to open a useful dialogue. Why do so many see a problem, including careful scientists? 

“Know there are better ways to handle this.” There are no “better” ways that are also “effective.” The only way other than culling to stop or slow the growth in number of deer is surgical sterilization, which takes many years and is much more expensive than culling. No other approved method has been proven to work.

Finally, in January as the cull approached, HSHV mounted a web page headed “Sharpshooters are out; keep animals in.” This is nothing but fear-mongering and is the final piece of evidence that HSHV has stepped into territory beyond its expertise. After all, deer are not pets.


Margaret A. Leary is the retired director of the University of Michigan Law Library. With graduate degrees in librarianship, history and law, she is now a freelance writer and researcher. She has explored the consequences of white-tailed deer overabundance since 2011, and written about that in the Ann Arbor Observer and The Ann. Her research has led her to be a strong supporter of controlling the number of white-tailed deer to maintain the ecological balance required for all other animals and plants to be healthy.


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    Mark Nielsen

    February 17, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Thank you so much for this very clear and thorough article. I understand the impulse to protect lovely, seemingly harmless woodland creatures. The truth is that they are extremely overpopulated and are doing perhaps permanent damage to the area’s native plants. I have seen the devastation in my own yard, which has some untamed areas. The native plants, and anything between the ground up to six feet is completely gone. This is causing erosion problems as well. Many of these deer are sickly or desperately hungry, and I have heard that they even eat the eggs of ground nesting birds. I don’t see how a healthy normal population of deer is not preferable to sick, starving creatures decimating native plants. In the natural world, they would be chased down, torn apart, and eaten alive by packs of wolves. Precision shooting seems far more humane, and it’s a practice that’s been working for licensed hunters in the north woods for decades. Maybe the anti-cull people could focus their efforts on the countless other forms of animal misuse and abuse? The Humane Society here has done an incredible job in so many ways, but in this particular effort, they are off-mission, misguided and misinformed.

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    February 17, 2017 at 10:21 am

    I’m not against the cull so much as I’m against supposedly fact-based arguments that are anything but. In that sense, I have to point out that Ms. Leary’s article is brimming with doublespeak, misrepresentation, and truthiness. Here are but 3 examples:

    Ms Leary refers to ecological balance within ‘beloved’ city nature areas. There is no ecological balance there–except as designated by humans. These nature areas were logged, farmed, and otherwise stripped of original naturalness long ago. For example, the species there now include a host of invasive plants introduced by humans. The over-abundance of deer there was caused by humans. There are no ‘fangs of a predator,’ there, excluding possibly domesticated dogs, because of humans. To say that there are is hyperbole at best.

    And to inject her pro-cull case with the loaded term, ‘fangs of a predator,’ in one sentence and then appeal to applying non-violence ‘to only one species’ in the very next sentence borders on the absurd. All of your obfuscation aside, Ms. Leary, we’re speaking of a cull of one species. Shooting that one species is violent, period. That natural world you want to preserve…is violent, period. Whatever point you were trying to make about non-violence, didn’t happen.

    Perhaps the most glaring example of lawyerly tap dancing is Ms. Leary’s response to the HVHS’s statement on the need for the cull to be ongoing. Rather than stopping after admitting that ‘It is true that culling must be repeated…’ Ms. Leary goes on a Gish Gallop of more than 100 additional words to say nothing. Thanks for the smokescreen, Ms. Leary, but yeah, Jackson’s cull still went on for nine years. And they’ll be revisiting the culling soon, as will Ann Arbor. Crazy how that needs to occur in prime deer habitat, isn’t it?

    Again, I’m not anti-cull. However, when efforts intended to shine light on the wildlife management issues throw more confusion into the mix instead, added ‘information’ turns out to be less informative and more propagandistic. Nice try, Ms. Leary, but no.

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      Margaret Leary

      February 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      I appreciate your comments and will use them to avoid “loaded” “obfuscation.”
      I regret I did not word my arguments so that you could understand them.

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      February 28, 2017 at 9:41 am

      Typically anti cull folks pick at the occasional mistake and ignore the other many, many scientific, non emotional, and environmentally sound arguments. Please don’t be so narrowly selective to continue to justify the weaker anti cull arguments in the city of Ann Arbor and many other cities in the United States.

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    February 19, 2017 at 10:04 am

    I not only understand your words perfectly, Ms. Leary, I understand why you chose them: to use hyperbole to make your bad faith argument for the cull. You know, like the bad faith dripping from your condescending reply to me above.

    And yes, if you claim to be an expert but use terms like ‘ecological balance’ when you’re actually referring to wildlife management, you’re loading your argument with truthiness. When you link to a chart that does not show the tripling of deer-car collisions you claim occurred but instead shows a one-year spike, you’re resorting to truthiness. When you cite the change in the lyme disease designation in 2016, but leave out the fact that the cull was authorized earlier, you’re drifting into truthiness. And by the way, a warm winter like this one will help tick populations soar–but I’m sure you’ll blame the deer.

    Again, I’m not against the cull–I understand wildlife management. However, I am against truthiness. And you repeatedly resort to it in an article that purports to set the record straight. Thus, you’re guilty of doing precisely what you accuse the HVHS of doing.