Few issues have divided the Ann Arbor community as contentiously as the recent decision by the Ann Arbor City Council to institute a cull of whitetail deer. After an overwhelming 10-1 vote by city council to cull the deer population (a process which began January 4 and could continue into March), protests have raged throughout the community, with one group – called Ann Arbor Residents for Public Safety – even filing a lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to stop the process.
So why exactly do some members of the community think a cull is necessary, and what makes it so divisive an issue? In order to learn more about the pros and cons of the cull, we spoke with community members on both sides of the issue.
First we spoke to pro-cull proponent Christopher Dick, an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Michigan and the Director of the E.S. George Reserve and U-M Herbarium.
Current: You’re for the cull. Why do you feel there is pushback in the community?
Dick: There is a lot of anthropomorphizing. These cull methods are really humane in the grand scheme of things. It seems like the type of thing a really progressive town would embrace.
I’m the director of the E.S. George Reserve, which is about 25 miles west of Ann Arbor, and we’ve been doing culls since 1942. So for me it was just the most mundane thing to do, and really just a standard tool we would use.
Current: How effective have those been?
Dick: They have to be regular. The fawn will produce one offspring its first year, and then after that they can produce two to three. So you do have to keep on top of it. There has to be some sustained effort.
It’s possible to get the deer down to a smaller amount so the city can try other methods. Right now, they’re not going to work.
"So if you have this isolated population, you’d have to sterilize, or use fertility drugs on 95 percent of the deer. But any of those deer you miss, they’re going to produce three offspring."
Current: Why wouldn’t those non-lethal methods that have been advocated be effective right now?
Dick: They can be effective in places where you have a population that’s not getting any immigration from the outside, and is small. So if you have this isolated population, you’d have to sterilize, or use fertility drugs on 95 percent of the deer. But any of those deer you miss, they’re going to produce three offspring.
So with the Ann Arbor deer population, there is a lot of movement. They could sterilize 65 percent of the deer and that just wouldn’t work.
Current: Not to be dramatic, but what’s the worst case scenario if the cull doesn’t happen?
Dick: Starvation, disease, ecological degradation, traffic accidents involving deer. Those are extreme scenarios, but when you have a healthy deer population, you don’t have to worry about them.
Deer densities are heterogeneous in the city, and there are some areas that really have a lot of deer. So those deer, if they’re unable to find food source, a lot of them will starve, typically the yearlings, which are smaller than the adults. They’re unable to reach above the browse line.
Another thing that can happen is disease. Chronic wasting disease is the scariest. It’s similar to mad-cow disease. It’s transmitted by feces and saliva, so if deer are highly concentrated they’re more likely to be eating off the same plants, or they’ll be moving around in feces. Lyme disease is kind of contentious. The deer don’t actually have it, but the deer tick is the one that actually transmits it. So the more deer that you have roaming in the backyard, the more ticks that will jump off and jump into your lawn and potentially transfer the disease.
Next we spoke to Wendy Welch, Marketing Director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley. The Humane Society has been one of the biggest anti-cull voices in the community.
Current: Can you explain to us the Humane Society’s main concern about the cull?
Welch: There have been voices in the media that have already framed the issue as Ann Arbor has too many deer. It’s important to step back and look at that. Do we have too many deer? I think that’s the most important thing from our perspective: Is there a problem, and if so, what is it? And if so, what are the best ways to deal with this?
Current: Instead of starting this cull immediately, what is the Humane Society’s proposal for analyzing the issue?
Welch: The city did two flyovers (Editor’s note: The flyover reports commissioned by the City of Ann Arbor can be found here and here) and they counted at most 168 deer within the city, including deer in the city limits and right outside city limits.
Again, there’s a discrepancy over whether we have too many deer. Anecdotally, there are issues. Some people in their backyard, they have understandable complaints about deer eating their landscaping and gardens. But there are lots of non-lethal methods to work with those. Not only are those methods humane, but they’re also more effective.
Current: It sounds like from the Humane Society’s perspective, there is a question of if a cull is even needed, as much as it is the method being used.
Welch: If we determine the problem is too many deer and we go to a cull right away; first, most places use non-lethal methods and they study for years and get several data points to determine whether or not the population is rising and how much and where. From those data points, they determine what to do, and most places start with non-lethal methods, at least first.
Here, we don’t even have those data points, and we jumped immediately to culling. And culling has been proven not to work. It’s a short-term fix, and it has to be done year after year after year.
"Obviously our first and foremost concern is for the animals. If there actually were a concern of animals dying because they were starving or getting sick, this would be a completely different scenario. But our deer are very healthy."
Current: It seems like part of the concern from activists on the other side of the issue is what happens to the deer if overpopulation becomes a problem.
Welch: Obviously our first and foremost concern is for the animals. If there actually were a concern of animals dying because they were starving or getting sick, this would be a completely different scenario. But our deer are very healthy. That’s why residents went to city council to begin with, because there deer we have are very healthy, and eating the food in their backyards.
Current: What would you say to someone who argues that these are proactive steps, to prevent a much bigger problem in the future?
Welch: We don’t do preemptive kind of strikes for anything else. We don’t go out and start killing animals because we think something bad might happen. That doesn’t make sense. Are we going to continue to shoot and kill animals, and decide that we’re not living with wildlife, we’re living separately, or are we going to figure out better ways? There are lots of communities that have figured out better ways, and we think Ann Arbor should be one of them.
The City of Ann Arbor’s August 2014 Deer Management Options Report can be found here, along with a timeline of the decision-making behind the cull.