East Lansing Council Planning to Put Deer Cull Question on August Ballot

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020, 7:45 am
Chris Gray

The East Lansing City Council is ready to ask voters to weigh in on the question of whether to hire professional sharpshooters to cull the City’s burgeoning deer herd, an issue that has vexed the City for years.

Following a consensus of the City Council at last night’s discussion-only meeting, City Manager George Lahanas said he would put on Council’s consent agenda for next week the resolution to put this question on the Aug. 4 primary election ballot:

“Shall the City of East Lansing, in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, conduct an annual deer cull program for the purpose of deer population management, using professional sharpshooters?”

“Without knowing what the citizens want on this issue, it’s hard to make the right decision,” said Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens. “Let the citizens decide, and we can follow their will.”

Council, however, will not be required to follow the majority’s will. Lahanas said that the vote would be advisory, meaning that any decision to kill excess white-tailed deer in East Lansing will ultimately be up to the Council.

But the results of the ballot question will indicate voter will and would set up the expectation that the Council follow it.

“If you ask the voters, they’ll expect you to follow their will,” Lahanas said.

Council Member Jessy Gregg suggested that even if a majority votes “no,” Council might decide that problems from deer are bad enough to warrant a cull.

“We could be setting us up for the situation where it will fail, and we’ll have to put this through anyway,” she said.

Lahanas told Council that if the voters approve a cull and the Council does follow that lead, a hunt would occur in the winter of 2020-21, which would be before a new generation of fawns are born.

Council Member Mark Meadows said he’d defer to a ballot question for now, but that he was ready to pull the trigger on the deer cull today.

“I’m ready to say, ‘Let’s cull the deer,’” Meadows said. “I think the sharpshooters is the way to proceed. This is the least expensive way for us to proceed.”

He also expressed irritation that residents would have to live through another cycle of deer feasting on summer gardens before a decision is made. He added that if approved, the cull would not be a one-time incident but a long-term deer management strategy.

Stephens noted that he heard little interest in a cull at a recent Council of Neighborhood Presidents meeting, but, he said, “I’ve gotten emails that we absolutely have to cull the deer.”

Mayor Ruth Beier, on the other hand, said she would never vote to hire sharpshooters to kill the City’s deer, and she expected a close Council vote in the fall even if voters want a cull.

Although there is a widely held perception that the deer population is out-of-control, the 2019 survey showed fewer deer than the 2018 survey. City staff have said, however, that this is probably due to trail construction temporarily pushing deer out of the areas where the counts occur.

Council Member Lisa Babcock was more of a mixed mind than some of her colleagues. She said she opposed advisory ballot questions as a principle, but was willing to support this one.

Babcock was unsure of the right way to handle the deer population, but said her own research into other options, such as giving deer birth control, had shown them to be failures. She noted that a program in New York State involved spaying with hysterectomies, and that this, too, failed to control the population.

Meridian Township has a deer management program where it issues permits to skilled bowhunters that allows them to buy tags to take deer in the township’s parks and preserves, as well as extra tags for use on private property, with approval. Ann Arbor, by contrast, employs professional sharpshooters at taxpayer expense.

Meadows strongly prefers professional sharpshooters over private bowhunters to cut down the City’s deer numbers.

East Lansing currently does not allow deer hunting, and it would have to pass a separate ordinance to allow a program such as the one in Meridian Township.

In 2015, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources proposed a deer cull in East Lansing’s Harrison Meadows Park and Whitehills Park to help stop the spread of chronic wasting disease, which has decimated deer in other parts of Michigan and had been reported in Ingham County.

But the Council has repeatedly declined to order lethal action, so far only voting in 2014 to adopt an ordinance to ban the feeding of deer.

City Council could still decide next week to take some course of action other than putting this question on the Aug. 4 ballot. But as of now, it looks like they will move via next Tuesday's consent agenda to use the electoral process to learn the will of the voters on a deer cull.


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