Everything I’ve learned about deer and deer management


The City issued its report on Deer Management on Tuesday, May 12. 

This isn’t a spoiler alert.  As of April 18, 2015 I still have not seen the City of Ann Arbor’s proposed deer management plan.

But some Some of us have been complaining for years about the deer in our yards; others have been marveling at having urban deer.  And in the past year, the City has taken an official look at deer and their impact on human residents’ quality of life.

Several people have asked me how I will vote on the plan.  And that depends on what is included in the plan, and how confident I feel about the impact the plan will have as we try to improve human residents’ quality of life.

I see deer in my yard nearly every day.  I’ve changed my gardening to adapt to the deer – and to the raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits and snakes.  I’ve left the nesting birds alone, even as they dive-bomb me to warn me away from that area I want to weed.  Of all the animals in my garden, I like least the bees – but that’s because I’m allergic.  I plant flowers to attract bees, and cheer them on.  I just don’t want them near me.

Is there a deer problem?

There is clear, anecdotal evidence that the number of deer within Ann Arbor City limits has grown.  Because there is no historic deer count – no one took a deer census 20 or 10 or 5 years ago – all evidence for increased numbers of deer is based on anecdotes such as ‘I’ve never seen them in my yard before last year (or this year).’  But for those who have seen more deer and larger numbers of deer in all seasons, no other evidence is needed.

How bad is the deer problem?

For years, the deer have been in isolated areas – near North Campus, near the Huron River.  Those who garden near where the deer are have reported damage to their gardens.  The area of those complaints is growing.  Harsh winters in the last two years have seen deer moving in larger foraging areas, because the ground has been deeply covered by snow.  Deer eat whatever forage is available; in spring, they go after tender buds and shoots; in summer, they eat their preferred foods – including apple trees, hosta lilies, oriental lilies and onions.  And in winter, they will eat anything they can reach, including spruce trees – which are not a preferred food.  To my surprise, I learned that arborvitae are on the ‘deer love this’ list– and I learned that deer can be very picky about which hosta lilies they eat, sampling this one and devouring that one.

Forest foods for deer

20 ways to keep deer out of your yard

Dealing with deer in the garden

Where are the deer?

Today, most of the deer sightings and reports of vehicular accidents involving deer are on the both sides of the Huron River and the northern half of the city – primarily in the First and Second wards.  This spring, more reports of deer on the south side of town – notably in the Packard and Platt area – have come in.  There deer are in every ward, but not in every neighborhood.  The City expects a management plan will initially affect the areas of higher population – the north side of town.

What about accidents?  Are the deer a menace to drivers?

For years, the number of reported accidents involving deer and cars (or deer and bikes) has been fairly stable – hovering around 30 accidents a year.  Last year that number grew to over 50.  For what it is worth, this is not a large number of accidents as a portion of all accidents in Washtenaw County involving deer and cars.  Ann Arbor’s population is about 1/3 of the entire county’s population, and there are about 1000 annual accidents county-wide involving deer.

2013: Car-deer crashes continue to drop.

2014: Washtenaw County among top counties with deer-vehicle crashes.

What about Lyme Disease?

At this moment, there are no reported incidents of Lyme Disease being acquired in Washtenaw County.  Lyme Disease is present in northern Ohio and Western Michigan.  While Lyme Disease may be a future concern, it is not a current risk.

What damage have deer done to our natural areas?

This is one of the more frustrating things I learned.  Because deer eat, deer eat whatever they want to eat – native plants, cultivars, plants in natural areas and plants in gardens.  They eat in new and established rain gardens, in ‘butterfly and bee’ gardens, in professionally landscaped yards and in yards gone more to weeds.

There is anecdotal evidence of large stands of Trillium Grandiflorum and other native plants being eliminated by deer over-browsing.  There is also anecdotal evidence of willow and hardwood saplings being consumed, so no new trees can grow.  But the City has not undertaken a comprehensive study of deer damage in parks; it will be difficult to demonstrate the change in habitat if we have no ‘before and after’ evidence.

There is information available that can be generally applied.  There are deer exclosures (fenced areas to keep deer out) at the Botanical Gardens and at Leslie Science Center.  But whatever is being learned by creating these areas has not been shared by the City with the public.

The best indicator I have that eliminating significant numbers of deer will benefit our natural areas comes from this un-related study of the effect of wolves on habitat.  Not all natural areas will change significantly, but some areas will return.  In my mind, of course, I’m replacing wolves with human hunters.

Why not sterilize or relocate deer rather than kill them?

Right now, the MDNR does not allow relocating deer.  It also does not allow a community to use contraceptive or sterilization methods on does.  While the City might pursue sterilization or contraception, getting permission from the MDNR to attempt interventions that are still experimental in other states could easily take years – and many more residents of Ann Arbor might be affected in the interim.

Contraception, while possibly very effective in the future, is not a quick fix.  Deer may live as long as 11 years; most of those are reproductive years.  If deer reproduction is significantly reduced, it still will not affect the desire to immediately reduce deer population.  A community would see an absolute drop in deer numbers only after 5 or more years – years during which the community would pay about $500 to $1000 per doe per year for contraception.

The only way currently available to the City to reduce the absolute numbers of deer in an urban area is to hunt and kill them.

Sterilization at Cornell University

Contraception and political/social factors

Where will the hunt be?

The City has not determined that there will be a hunt.  But if there is, the City will need to identify one or more areas far enough away from residential uses for the hunt.  The area(s) will need to be cordoned off during the hunt, so random visitors are not placed at risk.  And during the months leading up to the hunt, the City will likely encourage a contractor to habituate the deer to the area by providing fodder – luring the deer to that specific area would be necessary in order for the deer to be present in sufficient numbers during the designated day(s) and night(s) of the hunt.

Who will do the hunting?

City staff expects that any hunt would require a contract with a group of sharpshooters.  These sharpshooters would help determine the best possible location(s) for a kill site, build hunting blinds in trees, create feeding stations to bring the deer to the kill site and make them comfortable there, and then, at an appointed time, kill the deer.  The time is likely to be mid-late winter, before does have given birth but after the regular hunting season.  No nursing fauns would be orphaned, if all goes according to plan.

What happens to dead deer?

One of the requirements for a cull by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (which must authorize an urban deer hunt) is that all the meat be donated to food banks.  It is not for sale, and is not for a hunter to take home.  If the City Council approves a cull as part of the deer management plan, then any meat will likely go to Food Gatherers or a similar group.

Deer don’t just die from hunting – or from car accidents.  I hear about deer dying in folks’ yards.  Some people have asserted that the deer died of starvation or illness.  Either could be true, but there is currently no report of deer illness in the City, and with the rich landscape available, there is likely to be little risk of starvation right now, even with harsh winters.  The harsh winters, though, might encourage deer to wander farther in their search for food – bringing them into the yards and neighborhoods away from the Huron River.  Right now, there is no entity that will remove a dead deer from your yard – without you paying them to do so.

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease in deer

Chronic Wasting Disease in deer

Deer Management Plan documents

Below are a few of the different deer management plan documents that I’ve read.  Most of the plans are similar in their elements.

Onalaska, WI

Ames, Iowa

Meridian Township, MI

Wisconsin Urban Deer Management

MDNR Quality Deer Management Program

MDNR Deer Management Plan

A guide to making an urban deer management plan

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4 Responses to Everything I’ve learned about deer and deer management

  1. Tricia says:

    Has anyone in the city spoken with Huron-Clinton Metroparks? They have (had?) a deer management process with a goal of 20 deer per square mile. (Note that DNR recommendation is for even lower densities.) When I participated in the Michigan Conservation Strwards Program in 2009 they showed us data from 2000 to 2005, and I have a note they had achieved their goal by 2009. What I don’t know is whether or not this is still ongoing. But hopefully the city can learn from their experience. (pretty sure they also have data documenting deer impact on vegetation)

    • sbriere says:

      The City staff and many residents of Washtenaw County have done an amazing job researching solutions used in other communities – from Metro Parks to upstate New York and beyond.

      One of the difficulties today is that I cannot say whether the City will cull (because there has been no vote) and I cannot assert that the City should intend to cull a specific number or reach a specific number per acre (because we don’t have any data to reliably indicate how many deer there are, or how many deer we ought to be able to coexist with.

      If you want more information about the research conducted by the staff and various volunteer groups, here’s a link to the City’s page on creating a deer management plan:

  2. bobby frank says:

    Sabra, thanks for your attention to this issue.
    I have lived in my home in ward 1 for 30 years. Deer sightings have gone from once every few years to almost daily. I am now concerned about Lyme disease because I feel it is important for us to be proactive, rather than wait and be reactive after those we know get this horrible disease locally. Why wait on preventive measures with a disease. All health experts acknowledge that Lyme disease will be here soon, so we need to cull deer now to be prepared.
    As for the issue of shooting guns in town, I have a thought. The deer are so habituated to people that many have lost their fear of humans. When I go in my backyard to chase them away, they often times won’t budge. Obviously they have little fear. So hunters can get within a few feet of them, practically eliminating risk. Another possibility is to use a tranquilizer dart gun to put them out, and then kill them in a safe and sanitary environment. This eliminates even the slightest risk to humans.
    Also, many of our backyards are filled with deer feces, and it is a health concern with E. Coli.
    Culling is the only way to go. Signs about not feeding deer will go nowhere. Will we enforce this? We don’t even enforce leash laws. And people will have bird feeders. And 30 crashes a year is way too high inside a city.
    Please work with city council to alleviate this NEW issue.
    Bobby Frank

    • sbriere says:

      State law – as is specific to the types of deer hunts discussed as ‘culling’ – requires that no weapons be fired within 450 feet of any residence – unless all residents within 450 feet have agreed in writing. Or so I understand. So, while a hunter might be able to get within a few feet of a deer anywhere in Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor City won’t conduct a hunt except in places that are relatively far from residents.

      You are correct about the deer feces. All feces – raccoon, cat, dog, deer – can be a source of e. coli unless it is heated and composted. I don’t handle cat feces barehanded (sorry, cats) and I wouldn’t leave any other fecal material (including human) out where it would come in contact with humans. Please place any fecal matter in a plastic bag and in the trash – which is what we do with dog feces and cat litter.

      Thanks, Bobby.

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