East Lansing Council Unexpectedly Balks at Deer-Cull Ballot Proposal

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020, 1:22 pm
Chris Gray

Above: Lantern Hill neighborhood resident Elinor Holbrook, who has asked City Council to order a cull now.

The East Lansing City Council has abruptly changed course on its plan for how to manage the City’s deer population, last night deciding not to put on the August ballot a citizen advisory vote on the fate of the hoofed mammals.

At least not just yet.

Following recommendation of City staff, Council had had on its consent agenda a resolution to put to East Lansing voters on the August 4 ballot the advisory question of a deer cull. That means the expectation was that the move to the ballot would be approved by Council without further discussion.

Instead, last night the Council decided to ask City Manager George Lahanas to investigate whether a white-tailed deer cull is still feasible in the coming months, before this summer.

A decision could be made at the Feb. 11 Council meeting to authorize the City Manager to engage U.S.D.A. sharpshooters to thin the herd. Alternatively, Council could still decide to put the matter on the August ballot. Council could also take some other action.

Council Member Mark Meadows led the change in direction, arguing that the citizens elected the Council to make these tough decisions, not punt it back to the people.

He also said he heard frustration at the increasingly visible deer herd, which is protected from regular hunting, everywhere he went during his recent fall re-election campaign.

“Every single neighborhood has an issue with deer, skunks, and other critters that seem to be invading the neighborhoods at this point in time,” Meadows said.

Above: Deer parading at night through the backyard of East Lansing resident Mike Vasievich (contributed photo).

At last week’s discussion, the Council seemed to be moving full steam ahead on putting an advisory question to voters.

But Lisa Babcock had raised then the question of whether non-binding advisory ballot questions really make sense. This week, Meadows said he was influenced by Babcock’s perspective.

Babcock and the Council’s other new member, Jessy Gregg, appeared to be in general agreement with Meadows on the deer issue – that it is time to do a cull.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens still preferred a ballot question, but deferred to the will of the Council.

Mayor Ruth Beier has indicated she is strongly opposed to killing deer.

Babcock said she has heard from constituents who are both pro- and anti-deer, but a majority of both camps opposed an August ballot question, she said.

“The universal thought has been, ‘You chickens! We elected you to make decisions.’”

Early in Tuesday night’s meeting, Ray Vlasin of the Harrison Meadows neighborhood added a new dimension to discussion of the fairness of a citywide vote on the deer problem.

In a statement presented to Council, Vlasin (above) pointed out that the deer do not have the same effect on the City’s older, inner neighborhoods as they do the homes on the outskirts of town and near the City’s large parks.

“Since the problem is not a citywide problem, a majority of the voters outside the impacted areas likely will see the problem as ‘not affecting me,’ as a trivial matter, or as a simple species protection issue and vote no,” said Vlasin, who lives on Cricket Lane. “A no vote, by citizens not understanding the severity of the problem experienced by a few thousand of their community members likely will constitute a huge barrier to further technically-based action by the Council.”

Vlasin lives near the Northern Tier Trail near three parks where deer thrive: Henry Fine Park to the west, Abbot Road Park to the north, and Whitehills Park to the east. He argued that the problem is localized and needs a local public-welfare approach by well-informed officials, not a citywide, nonbinding, advisory vote.

Although much of the grief about the deer has been focused on the damage they do to people’s gardens, Gregg said she supported a cull for a different reason -- their effect on the health of humans.

“I’ve heard some really terrible stories about Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses,” Gregg said.

This is a point made at the Jan. 14 Council meeting by Elinor Holbrook, who lives in the Lantern Hills neighborhood and who has also raised concerns about deer-car accidents.

Lahanas informed the Council that it would be unlikely to get the bureaucratic approval from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire sharpshooters to kill the deer in City parks until next winter.

But Meadows insisted he try.

According to Lahanas, Council has until May to place items on the August 4 ballot, the ballot on which voters will nominate partisan candidates for the November election for offices other than president.

Meadows noted last night that the Council had been debating this issue a long time, since before his return to Council in 2015. That the debate will now continue through at least February.



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