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A fight over deer as Ann Arbor readies for first-ever cull

Dec 31, 2015

Richard Wickboldt, holding a young evergreen that has been browsed by deer up to the six-foot mark
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

In 2003, Shari Elkort and her husband Richard Wickboldt fell in love with this property close by the Huron River. The yard was thick with mature trees, shrubs and other plants. In the spring and summer, there were wildflowers.  

"It was just a paradise," sighs Elkort.

But paradise has been lost,or perhaps, for the deer, paradise has been found.

Vegetation-rich yards like this provide abundant food for a highly-adaptable species. There are no predators, and no hunting, so as the city expands its footprint, deer multiply.

Elkort says two herds of deer visit the yard daily for a meal.

The branches of mature trees have been browsed up to six feet - the height a buck can reach standing on his hind legs.

All around the remaining trees and shrubs, Elkort and Wickboldt have erected deer fencing.  It's the only way to salvage anything green.  Deer repellent spray doesn't stop them.  The dog doesn't scare them.  

Deer fencing protecting young trees on the Wickboldt-Elkort property in Ann Arbor
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

"We've tried everything," Elkort says, her voice quavering a bit.  "We've tried deer-resistent plants. They eat those too."

Oh, and then there's all the deer poop.  Elkort really appreciates that her husband deals with it.

"He's great," she says, crinkling her eyes with a fond smile.  "He comes out and he cleans it all up.  It's an extension of his job now!"

"Every day," agrees Wickboldt cheerfully.  " I've picked up to five pounds of it."

Not just yards being damaged

Deer are also eating a lot of vegetation in the city's natural areas.  

Wildflowers in some parks are disappearing, along with oak and maple saplings.  Those saplings are the  city's future woods.

Natural resources staff with the city have been worried about the situation for a couple decades now.  It's hard enough to fight invasive species, conducting controlled burns every summer to bring back wildflowers and native shrubs and trees, which brings back birds and butterflies.

All that effort seems to goes to waste when deer eat the native plants. 

Some natural areas in the city haven't seen a trillium in years.

Deer in brush
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

It will get worse if nothing is done, says Dave Borneman, Deputy Manager for Volunteerism and Natural Area Preservation for the city.

He says one has only to look at Rochester Hills, which abandoned a plan to cull in 2009 after a group of residents protested.  Since then, deer numbers have dramatically grown.

"There are no wildflowers in the parks," says Borneman.  "And the deer have really eaten everything.  And there are more deer-car collisions.  We aren't to that point yet - and the goal is to not let us get to that point."

We have a problem, agree city officials.   Now what?

The city  began studying what to do two years ago, after an outpouring of complaints from residents in Wards 1 and 2 - the ones with the most deer. 

The complaints weren't just about loss of vegetation.  The deer were so tame they could be stroked as they browsed underneath windows.  They were becoming territorial over yards, the bucks even fighting over mates on people's property.

Deer-car collisions weren't (yet) going up.  But many said the writing is on the wall:  if the deer are allowed to reproduce unchecked, it is a matter of time before those collisions increase.

Officials surveyed residents.  About half supported a cull.  They held public meetings, and conducted aerial surveys of the deer.    Reports were written, experts brought in to city council meetings. 

The city solicited reports from a pro-cull group called Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, and the anti-cull group, the Humane Society of Huron Valley.

They looked at the research on non-lethal methods of deer control, like catching deer and surgically sterilizing them, concluding, largely on the basis of a five-year study by Cornell University, that those methods do not work. 

Culling deer - killing them - does.  

In the end, the city chose that path - hiring trained marksmen to do the job as the safest and most effective option. 

With sharpshooters in them, how safe will the parks be?

Earl Krom says he wants residents to feel safe.  He's a marksman with Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - APHIS.  He says his group has never had a safety incident.

"It is safe," says Krom.  "We've done this for a long time.  What separates us is our training - we're specialized in this type of work - and the equipment that we use."

Equipment like night vision scopes and FLIR - that stands for Forward Looking Infra Red. 

Krom lets me look through the FLIR.  I'm surprised to see the trees are faintly white.  Krom explains that anything that is warmer than the air will show up white.  I turn and look at the only other mammal in the vicinity - Krom himself.  The outline of a man is clearly visible.

Anthony Duffiney, a supervisor in the USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services Program, peers through a FLIR device (Forward Looking Infrared) in a wood in the city of Ann Arbor
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

"I can definitely tell that you are a human and not a deer," I joke.  "Yes," says Krom.  He explains that once a deer is spotted with the FLIR, he can see in much greater detail using the night vision scope, which magnifies the effect of light. 

For safety reasons the marksmen will only hunt at night, in nature areas temporarily closed to the public.  Unlike hunters, who often shoot the larger target of the chest, marksmen shoot the head or neck, so the deer is almost certain to die instantly.

Tanya Hilgendorf says she is buying none of this. 

Passionate opposition to the cull, led by HSHV

Hilgendorf is President of the Humane Society of Huron Valley.

"I think people should be terrified," she says of the cull plan.  "I really do."

Under Hilgendorf, the Humane Society  has waged an against-all-odds campaign to try to stop the cull, so far, without success.

The group has disseminated flyers that warn people their kids and pets could be shot in their own neighborhoods.  

A website run by HSHV entitled "Stop the Shoot," claims that non-lethal methods do work, that fears of deer-car collisions and the prospect of tick-borne Lyme disease are overblown, and that there are ways to deter deer from eating plants on private property.

Hilgendorf says the city itself is to blame for the situation.  Controlled burns are actually creating new food sources for the deer, she says, and the city's attempt to restore "ecological balance," is a pipedream. 

Hilgendorf also alleges the whole two-year process was a sham, that city staff knew all along they'd
approve a cull. 

"The idea that we're killing wildlife because we're worried about a few plants is absolutely outrageous," says Hilgendorf.  "I mean, I think a lot of people are just not trying.  It takes effort."

Hilgendorf says the cull also violates Ann Arbor's values of peace and non-violence.  The city should be a haven for deer, she says  - not a killing ground.  "I say,  let's increase the social tolerance for our wild neighbors."

But Maurita Holland thinks this attitude is unrealistic.  

Others say predation is a fact of life, even in a city

Holland is a  founder of Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that supports the cull.

Holland says it's illogical for the Humane Society to oppose a city deer cull, when it doesn't oppose hunting. 

Throughout Michigan, about 300,000 deer are killed every year by hunters, which helps control the deer population. 

"Are Ann Arbor deer special?" she asks rhetorically.  "Peace is the way amongst people.  But in the animal kingdom, in the cycle of life, there have to be checks and balances.  Since we've removed the wolves, and the bears and the other natural predators for this deer prey, we have to play that role."

The cull begins on Monday, January 2nd.  Twenty-four parks and natural areas in Wards 1 and 2 will be closed from 4:00 p.m. through 7:00 a.m., Monday through Friday; the cull is scheduled to end March 1st.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the cull could last through March, but it is scheduled to end on March 1.