No Deer Cull in Sight Yet for East Lansing

Monday, September 30, 2019, 7:00 am
By: 
Brad Minor

Above: Deer near Burcham Hills in a photo contributed by Jodi Spicer.

All talk and no action: that is how some residents feel after East Lansing’s latest meeting on deer management.

Last Thursday (Sept. 26), the City of East Lansing held a community-wide meeting on deer management at the Hannah Community Center. About fifty residents and City staff attended.

The meeting featured panelists from Michigan State University, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the USDA Fish and Wildlife Service who discussed East Lansing's deer situation and provided information about deer populations and deer habitats in Michigan.

In advance of the meeting, numerous residents told ELi they believe its time to look at a cull.

“It is time for the City Council to direct the City Manager and the Director of Public Works to develop a management plan that includes deer culling and bring it forward for public review and actions,” said Ray Vlasin, Co-Chair of the Governmental Relations Committee of Harrison Meadows Association, in an email to ELi.

“Incidentally,” added Vlasin, “at the end of the meeting some three years ago, the DNR representative attending said to me, 'If asked, I could develop such a plan in a month.’”

But not everyone in East Lansing wants to see a cull. The photo below was contributed by Jessica Flowers, a neighbor of Vlasin’s, who took the photo in her backyard, which “backs right up to Harrison Meadows Park. She said her family sees deer “almost every day, and we enjoy seeing them. There’s a doe that keeps her babies in the brush right behind our backyard every year until they’re ready to be more mobile.”

At the meeting last Thursday, there was little talk of developing an active plan for a cull.

The first part of the meeting involved audience members using a texting system to respond to pre-arranged questions. In one of the live polls, 72% of residents participating indicated they think there are too many deer in East Lansing. By contrast, 13 percent said the number is just right and 6 percent said there aren't enough deer.

Only 16 percent of those participating said that they had not seen a deer in the past week. It was clear many of those attending came because they are stressed about the deer’s impact at their homes. This mirrors previous meetings and polls, when those participating also stated that there are too many deer in East Lansing.

Below: Photo contributed by George Bitsicas of deer in his backyard on Walnut Heights Drive.

When asked immediately after the meeting what the City is doing about what many perceive as a deer overpopulation problem, Mayor Mark Meadows responded, “We aren't doing anything as far as I know. We remove deer that get whacked by cars but we don't really have a program at this point."

He went on to say, “The question that I needed answered that I didn't actually hear is where are [the deer]. I know every neighborhood has a different impact but you know the deer come into the neighborhoods. So when they institute programs, do they target the wooded areas in a community or the field? Can we actually go onto these privately owned agricultural areas and cull the deer out of there?"

Meridian Township's Deer Management Program came up Thursday as a possible model. That township buys hunting tags and then gives them out to township residents that it considers to be qualified, competent and experienced hunters. Each hunter must be approved by the township.

The "managed deer harvest," as the Township calls it, lasts from October to the end of the year and allows for bow hunting in numerous parks, land preserves, and some large, relatively rural private properties (with property owners’ permission).

DNR wildlife biologist Chad Fedewa said at Thursday’s meeting that the Meridian program has been widely accepted by township residents.

Currently, hunting is not allowed in East Lansing. For a program like Meridian’s to be feasible here, the City would have to pass ordinances that allow for deer hunting.

Below: Deer along Ridgeway Drive in photos contributed by Dan Jones and Janice Hironaka.

Meadows said after the meeting that he thought East Lansing residents would accept something similar to Meridian’s program.

“The reality is that we would be doing it in these wooded areas and not in people’s backyards, so they probably wouldn't even know it was going on, besides the fact that they would see less deer activity," he said.

Meadows said that after this latest meeting, the Council may take action in the near future and possibly authorize a cull.

“Hopefully soon," he said. "They said they would share the stuff from tonight with the City Council. I'm guessing we will have a presentation from our DPW staff at a discussion meeting [of City Council], followed hopefully by some sort of authorization," Meadows said.

Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, who also attended the event, said that meetings like Thursday's are an essential part of creating a comprehensive deer management program for the City.

“We need to get feedback from the community,” he explained, because “if we do something the community hates, then we aren't helping the problem. We actually do need to have these meetings because we need to take the temperature of the community – it's essential. Ann Arbor went ahead with a cull and they're still paying the price with yearly protests," he said.

Deer along the Northern Tier Trail are a common sight now. (Photo by Alice Dreger.)

Altmann and Meadows are running for reelection on November 5, facing four challengers: John Revitte, Warren Stanfield, Lisa Babcock, and Jessy Gregg. (See ELi's voter guide.)

According to Thursday’s panelists, there are several contributing factors to the rising deer population in our region.

One of the biggest is that the Lower Peninsula in Michigan maintains a lot of farmland, which provides good habitat for deer. Research presented showed that, over time, the deer population of Michigan has shifted in terms of concentrations from the Upper Peninsula more to the Lower Peninsula.

Fawns in Michigan also have an exceptionally high survival rate. According to a study conducted by an MSU graduate student, 76 percent of fawns survived the first year of life, well above the expected life expectancy from other studies of wild deer.

With the mixture of relatively good weather, plentiful food, and a high survival rate, the population of deer in the Lower Peninsula continues to grow. And as the population of deer is growing, the number of hunters in Michigan is shrinking.

Young people are not as interested in hunting as people of past generations have been. A graph displayed at the meeting showed that the majority of hunters are now older adults.

What about sterilization? Fedewa said this is an expensive solution that isn’t likely to make a big impact on the population. The cost of culls depend on how they are implemented. A managed harvest with authorized hunters can be less expensive.

Mike Vasievich of East Lansing’s Fox Hills neighborhood, near Henry Fine Park, shared with ELi a video shot at night in his backyard showing a parade of deer. Here’s a still from that video:

An expert in forestry, Vasievich explains, “I have worked for many years to remove invasive plants and restore native plants in East Lansing parks. We have planted many tree seedlings/saplings and many have been browsed or destroyed by buck rubs. It is very difficult to get survival of new trees.”

Vasievich notes that an experimental “exclosure” in Harrison Meadows Park shows how trees kept behind large fencing fare much better. He also expresses concern about deer tick-borne diseases, although experts at Thursday’s meeting noted that such ticks can travel even without deer overpopulation.

Not everyone at the meeting wanted to see deer purposefully killed. Several attendees indicated through the live polls and during the question-and-answer period that they enjoy seeing the deer and see them as part of a rich, healthy environment.

Some also questioned the data being collected, suggesting the science was poor because, for example, deer-vehicle collisions are shown to be increasing in terms of absolute numbers, but such data doesn’t take into account the increasing population of humans (the relative crash rate).

It looks unlikely that City Council will decide anything in terms of new policy before the election on November 5. For some residents, that makes deer management an issue in this campaign.

 

Alice Dreger contributed reporting from communications with readers who sent in photos and video.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article had Mike Vasievich referring to "back rubs" by deer. That was supposed to be "buck rubs" (bucks rubbing up against trees). So far as we know, deer don't give back rubs.

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