Deer Debate Heats Up
Public debate on how (and whether) to manage deer in East Lansing heated up last night at City Council’s meeting, with the new Council deciding not to take any formal action on the matter until at least February. The plan had been to have the culls in the two East Lansing parks start this month, but Council elected last night to put off the cull. Their interest is in part to try to see, from results of the legal hunt this year, how many deer around the area are actually shown to have chronic wasting disease. (Hunted deer are supposed to be tested before people eat them.)
At Council, questions were raised about whether deer are unwanted, destructive invaders or friendly co-inhabitants of a vibrant ecosystem, whether the real motive behind the desire to cull in two East Lansing parks is substantial property damage or concerns about deer having chronic wasting disease, whether by deferring matters the Council is losing an opportunity to have deer culled at little cost to the City, and whether government agencies can be trusted to act rationally and safely.
The public hearing at Council last night was technically centered on an ordinance change designed to allow hunting by government-authorized agents within the limits of the City of East Lansing. But the ordinance itself was discussed almost not at all, because Councilmembers and the public wanted to talk about the bigger question of what, if anything, to do about the deer.
Cathy DeShambo, Public Works administrator for East Lansing, reviewed for the new Council the proposal to have USDA Wildlife Services come in to Harrison Meadows Park and White Park to kill deer and remove the carcasses for testing for chronic wasting disease. She presented to Council a timeline of what’s happened in terms of discussions so far, as well as map showing that over half of all deer/car accidents in East Lansing from 2008-2015 occurred within a quarter-mile of the proposed cull areas. DeShambo acknowledged that, besides the question of deer causing accidents that harm humans, there are two concerns at play: landscape damage and chronic wasting disease.
Councilmember Erik Altmann asked if the goal was “to take out the whole herd” and DeShambo said “no.” DeShambo suggested it would be essentially impossible given how deer operate, and noted that “a lot” of deer have been killed in Meridian Township (reportedly about 500), and there are still deer all over there. (At a previous meeting, a representative of USDA Wildlife Services said the goal was to kill all of the deer in the two East Lansing parks.)
Altmann asked if using birth control would be possible, but DeShambo explained such an approach is challenging and also leaves open questions about whether the meat from a treated deer would be safe for other animals, including humans, to eat.
DeShambo said that using the organized cull with testing would provide assurance that chronic wasting disease has not reached the East Lansing deer. But when Altmann asked how “success” is being measured in these programs, DeShambo had no simple answer to that question.
Beier asked whether there are quantitative measurements of horticultural damage, and DeShambo said she could gather those. She said one concern is that deer can forage disproportionately on native plants, leaving invasive species of plants to thrive.
Robert Posey of Whitehills spoke in public comments to express doubt that chronic wasting disease has affected the East Lansing deer. Identifying himself as a hunter and conservationist, he said he thought those complaining about deer damage represented a “squeaky wheel minority” and he said he and his neighbors value living near (and with) deer. He said he appreciated Altmann’s question about what the goal is, and how success will be measured. If the goal is healthy deer, he suggested, we already have that. He also did not like the idea of people with high-powered rifles shooting in East Lansing parks.
Meri Anne Stowe, also of Whitehills, also opposed the plan to kill the deer. She said, “It is literal overkill,” and said very few deer in Meridian have been shown to have chronic wasting disease. (Three from a single family group have been confirmed to have had chronic wasting disease.) She said deer eat her roses and hosta plants, and ate all of her tomatoes this year, but that “it is a price we are willing to pay” for living in a healthy environment. She said the smell of a skunk the other night made her happy because it signaled a health ecosystem, as do the hawks she sees.
Stowe was particularly concerned about the idea of trusting government agencies to do the right thing. She said that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) “competes with the Army Corps of Engineers in fabulous blunders” and that projects like this “take on a life of their own.”
Jay Brant, who lives near Henry Fine Park, agreed with Stowe’s skepticism, sarcastically saying he put this plan under the category of “what could possibly go wrong?” He likened it to the governmental decision in Flint to stop using the City of Detroit water system, a decision that led to lead poisoning of the people of Flint.
Saying he and his wife are avid hunters, Brant questioned using high powered rifles in city parks. (USDA representatives told the previous Council that they would use special restricted ammunition that is unlikely to go through a deer.) Brant said he would be surprised if the agencies planning to do the kill don’t ask East Lansing for a “hold harmless” agreement that protects them from liability if they accidentally hurt a human. He said if they don’t ask for such an agreement, they don’t have very good lawyers. In his opinion, the solution to landscape damage is to either live with it or plant things deer don’t like to eat.
Steve Osborne, who lives near Tamarisk Park, asked why we should want to kill “these friendly co-inhabitants of the earth.” He spoke about humans damaging ecosystems around the world and likened the deer to human refugees seeking safe haven. Marie-Eve Bonneville, who lives in the same area as Osborne, asked how killing healthy deer is a solution to chronic wasting disease. She asked for data to show that we can slow the spread of the disease by killing apparently healthy deer in populations that have shown no signs of infection. She said that we should not kill the deer but change the landscape to co-exist. The deer eat her flowers, and she likes to see them.
Speaking in favor of the culls, Ray Vlasin of Harrison Meadows said he has experienced $10,000 - $15,000 damage on his property as a result of deer. He said that about a year and a half ago he hosted a meeting with representatives from eight neighborhood associations and that all were concerned, showing this is not a “squeaky wheel minority” group. He said he trusts East Lansing’s City workers and the DNR and USDA to proceed cautiously and sensibly in a “pilot” cull.
Beier moved to defer decision on the ordinance until the Council’s first meeting in February. She said her goal was to give new councilmembers time to digest all the material and opinions that had accumulated and to have more time to get more data. Altmann seconded the motion.
Councilmember Shanna Draheim raised the issue of potentially losing an opportunity to have a cull paid for by the state or federal government by waiting to start the cull. But Beier said it would be good to have results about a suspected case of chronic wasting disease in DeWitt, results from the Michigan-wide hunt, answers to questions about why these two particular parks (which are relatively far from Meridian Township compared to other East Lansing parks) are being targeted, and evidence that culling has some impact on chronic wasting disease.
Mayor Mark Meadows agreed this was the right way to approach the issue. Councilmember Susan Woods said it was important to figure out how much damage was occurring and whether this cull was really being done because of property damage or concerns about chronic wasting disease. She also supported the motion to defer.
Council voted 5-0 in favor of deferring further consideration of the ordinance until February.
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