Could East Lansing Do Something Like Meridian Township – Invite Residents to Bow-Hunt Deer?

Friday, January 31, 2020, 8:00 am
By: 
Chris Gray

Above: A white-tailed deer on East Lansing’s Northern Tier Trail near apartments on Chandler Road. (Photo by Alice Dreger)

As East Lansing residents engage in an occasionally heated discussion over what to do about white-tailed deer, their neighbors in Meridian Township have quietly carried out a popular bowhunting program in township parks and preserves for nine years.

“From a parks management perspective, there was a lot of over-browsing in our parks and preserves,” said Jane Greenway, the parks and land management coordinator for Meridian Charter Township.

That, in turn, led to the decimation of some plants and an unnatural progression of species, based primarily on the tastes of the deer. Acorns and oak saplings were particularly hit hard. The perception was that something had to be done.

Bowhunting by the people who live there

While other communities have resorted to hiring professional sharpshooters to rid themselves of excess deer, the Meridian Township program has primarily recruited local residents to hunt the deer with archery equipment.

The township currently has 85 residents signed up to hunt, and each goes to designated locations to sit and wait for the deer to approach. Permits for the program are free and are given in addition to deer tags hunters can get for the regular state deer-hunting program.

The township’s program has a waiting list, and all participants have had to prove both their archery skills and completed an archery safety program.

“It’s changed people’s perspective on who hunters are — they are our residents,” Greenway said.

She said the hunting program has opened recreation opportunities to a new outdoor community, and the hunters in turn have helped maintain the parks, reporting littering as well as illegal camps and fires.

A decade ago, the ire at the deer in East Lansing was common in Meridian Township as well, but those have dissipated. “We definitely field fewer complaints from residents. We haven’t won the war but we’re trying,” Greenway said. “It’s too bad East Lansing doesn’t just do it. … Our residents are very proud of being involved in it.”

Majority of East Lansing’s Council now appears ready to cull

The East Lansing City Council plans to take up the deer issue once again at its February 11 meeting, and the Council could decide to call for a cull of its deer before the leaves return to the trees this spring.

While Mayor Ruth Beier has consistently opposed deer culls, this week she told the Council of Neighborhood Presidents that a majority of the Council is leaning toward approving one.

Ruth Beier at City Council earlier this month. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Already this year, the Council strongly considered and then withdrew the idea of putting on the August ballot a question to voters about whether they think it’s time for the City Manager to contract with the U.S.D.A. to bring in professional sharpshooters to conduct a cull using firearms.

Former mayor and current Council Member Mark Meadows has strongly supported hiring professional sharpshooters to quickly bring down the deer numbers in the City, as opposed to an archery program of private residents, such as Meridian’s. Many houses stand near the East Lansing parks where the deer are relatively numerous.

“We could use archery as part of the program,” he told ELi. “The bowhunting cannot be effective without some element of the sharpshooter because the way the deer move through the community.”

The East Lansing City Council banned the discharge of arrows in the City in 2016, but left an exception for people hunting within a city-authorized wildlife control program.

Chronic wasting disease for a time motivated culling by the State

Chad Stewart, an elk and deer specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said bowhunting can work well as a long-term management program. More densely settled communities that have wanted to quickly bring down their deer populations in Michigan have been more likely to hire professional sharpshooters, who use firearms.

Meridian Township has never hired sharpshooters, but the DNR conducted its own cull in the township in 2015 to reduce the population after chronic wasting disease was reported in the township. The goal was to reduce the infection rate.

Most of the greater Lansing area is in a special disease management zone, and Greenway said that Meridian had been ground zero. The DNR sharpshooters quickly took out a few hundred deer, and the disease has since abated.

Still, even as no deer has shown up positive for the disease in two years, the disease has negatively affected the Meridian program. State regulations ban baiting deer in places the disease has been reported — and without baiting, the annual deer cull has been cut in half.

Local food banks have also stopped taking donated venison out of an abundance of caution, even though the disease has not been shown to affect humans.

Chronic wasting disease is difficult to detect because infected deer are asymptomatic until the late stages of the disease. Without visible signs, the meat must be tested to determine it’s positive.

But not all venison is tested, and it’s existed in Wyoming and Wisconsin for years. “It’s pretty clear that humans are consuming infected meat,” Stewart said.

On-the-ground reality of deer reduction requires considering numerous factors

While bowhunting in East Lansing might not be total folly, the places to set up deer blinds or tree stands in East Lansing are much more limited than Meridian Township. Here, there is a greater risk of a fatally-wounded deer will wander into someone’s yard, and a deer slain with an arrow is less likely to drop immediately than one killed with a firearm.

But sharpshooters come at a cost to taxpayers. While recruiting private residents to hunt deer costs very little to a municipality, professional sharpshooters can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 per deer, depending on how widely the animals are dispersed.

A sterilization or birth control program would be even more expensive, although Ann Arbor is currently trying both, and conducting a study of a hybrid method.

Stewart said birth control or sterilization program have only been shown to work in a self-contained population, such as with deer living on an island. “It doesn’t show efficacy in a free-ranging situation. Those activities are also very expensive.”

Another option — trapping and euthanizing the deer — is also discouraged. “It’s extremely stressful for the animal. Sharpshooting is a more humane euthanasia,” Stewart said.

Meadows would like to see a deer hunt in the next month or two before a new generation of fawns adds to the City’s herd.

But City Manager George Lahanas has openly doubted whether a hunt could be ordered so quickly, given the bureaucratic hurdles the City would need to clear. That means the City may need to wait until next winter to get it done even if a majority of Council gives a go-ahead on Feb. 11.

George Lahanas at the January 14 meeting of Council. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Stewart said sharpshooter hunts normally occur between January and March — after the peak fall hunting season to avoid conflicts with recreational deer killers, but before the return of leafy foliage makes it harder to locate and shoot the deer.

He said the deer reproductive cycle is not a big factor in this calculation. Mature does spend most of their lives in one state of reproduction or another: mating in the fall; pregnant in the winter; giving birth in the spring; and caring for their fawns through the summer.

Meadows had said a one-time cull would be ineffective, meaning that the City would have to renew (and fund) culling for years to avoid them statistically overwhelming the few predators that might come into town, such as the coyote.

“It’s a growing issue,” Meadows said.

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