Deer Problem in Washtenaw County

THE DEER PROBLEM IN WASHTENAW COUNTY

            By

Margaret A. Leary

 

“I never saw the deer. I felt the car hit something, then my hood popped open and I couldn’t see a thing. Miraculously, I pulled over safely, looked back and there was the dead deer.” Julie Hinkley’s deer encounter, in December 2010 on I-94 as she headed to her parents’ home in Manchester, was one of about 56,000 car-deer crashes in Michigan that year.

The deer population in Washtenaw County is exploding so fast that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment calls the county a “deer magnet,” and saying deer are a “Featured Species, highly valued by the citizens of Michigan.” The graceful deer, with melting eyes and majestic racks, make for fun viewing, but their increasingly disproportionate presence has negative consequences. Deer damage the habitat of many other creatures directly and indirectly; they ruin expensive landscapes and lower property values; they reduce the harvest of what they love to eat (soybeans, corn, apples, pears and more); they destroy the understory and native wildflowers in forests; they leap into the path of moving vehicles; and they carry diseases that can pass to humans or domestic animals.

Chris Graham, a local landscaper and naturalist, doesn’t think Washtenaw County is anywhere near its biological carrying capacity for deer. That is, our deer are not even close running out of food; county residents, he said, continue to improve the deer habitat by creating forest edges as we carve out subdivisions, plant crops, and provide super-nourishing nursery-raised plants that the deer seek out. Graham said the deer are great for his business: he’s asked to replant ravished landscapes with more deer-resistant varieties, to install fences and netting, and to return to repeat it all in a few years.

Living in a deer Eden pleases hunters who know Washtenaw as a county that produces large bucks. But DNRE research shows the social carrying capacity for deer is drawing nigh: the number of deer angers farmers, whose crops suffer while fattening the deer. Research at Michigan State University found that deer caused a 24-43 percent crop loss in dry beans, and 19% in alfalfa. The deer outrage garden-proud homeowners whose yews, hostas, lilies, and hemlocks also fatten the deer; and alarms motorists who fear becoming one of the 56,000 annual car-deer collision victims.

Hunters press the DNRE to improve deer habitat and increase the size and number of bucks. Farmers, homeowners, and motorists would prefer many fewer deer, according to DNRE research. This conflict has paralyzed the DNRE, which by state statute must manage the deer population in a scientific manner, starting with establishing a goal for the number of deer in each “deer management unit” (DMU). As of 2010, when the DNRE published its current Deer Management Plan, the DNRE has been unable to establish a current goal for DMU081, Washtenaw County, so it still uses the 1996 goal of 23 deer per square mile, although the DNRE estimates the actual deer population in the county at 35 per square mile (there are 488 people per square mile, according to the census). The deer population is 55 percent above the goal.

Deer Population Increase in Southern Lower Peninsula, 1970-2010; and in food eaten, at 2,000 pounds per deer per year.

1970 100,000 Ate 2,000,000 pounds of food
2010 1,000,000 Ate 2 billion pounds of food
Increase 1,000% 1,000%

 

Human Population Increase in Washtenaw County, 1970-2010

1970 234,000
2010 345,000
Increase 47%

Source: Deer population, DNRE. Human population, U.S. Census

People per deer in Washtenaw County: 14

All you need to know about the rate at which deer can multiply is in the title of a study done in 1937 at the University of Michigan’s E.S. George Preserve near Pinckney: “Six deer produce 160 in six seasons.”

Our “deer magnet” county’s drawing force has powered up from 1996 to 2005 because of changes in land use. Cropland—where deer love to graze—has increased from 34% to 54%; forests, where they like to hide out and browse, has grown from 18% to 31%, and water from 2% to 5%. Only 4% of the land is public and thus open to hunters. The DNRE concludes that at 35 deer per square mile, “landscape damage and crop damage from deer are becoming more evident.” More evident, indeed.

We may not be near the biological carrying capacity, but biologists measure a second kind of carrying capacity: social carrying capacity, or the degree humans tolerate or accept a species present in their environment. Among non-hunters, human tolerance is wearing thin. Take Barton Hills Village. In the late 1990’s, the Village briefly used sharpshooters to reduce its herd. This controversial action didn’t last long, but shows how aggravated the residents were. The cities of Grand Haven and Rochester Hills have also used sharpshooters, but the political pushback wasn’t worth the very short-term benefits. New deer quickly replaced those removed.

Ann Arbor City Council Member Sabra Briere lives on Broadway on the north side of town. She said (referring to the photo above): “I love living near the deer, but am not so enthusiastic that I don’t see a problem. There are accidents involving deer and cars; I see broken deer regularly, and many of my neighbors speak softly about venison. I’ve found DeerOff works well for my tulips. As you can tell, nothing works for pumpkins.”

Jeff Plakke, Natural Areas Manager for the University of Michigan Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, says that ten-foot high fencing now protects the Gardens’ formal beds, an expensive solution that involved clearing for and installing the fence, and will require continuous monitoring and repair. Before that, Horticulture Manager Mike Palmer said, the deer devoured yews, perennials, and even whole plants like hens and chicks in the rock garden. In fact, the deer defied urban myths and stepped right up to the concrete porch to sneak into the perennial garden, until scissor gates stopped them.

Out in the natural areas, all newly planted and even volunteer trees and most shrubs get a protective wrap of six-foot high wire. Plakke pointed out two pairs of ten by ten-foot plots that were set up in 2006. In each pair, one area had been fenced to exclude deer and the other left open. The exclosures, even on a late October afternoon, were noticeably healthier, with taller oak seedlings and more and healthier native plants including Culver’s root, little blue stem grass, and golden rod. The unprotected areas had more big bluestem grass, and invasive plants had crept in.

Randy Baker, a Columbiaville, MI naturalist who spoke about white-tailed deer at the Botanical Gardens in October, explained the implications of this change in plant growth. Particular plants provide seed food and cover for particular species of birds; each species has its preference. When a plant variety disappears, so may the birds that depend on it for food or cover. Baker has noticed a drop in the pheasant population, which he suspects is caused by increased deer grazing.

Plakke described the absence of natural predators in 21st Century Washtenaw County. Three hundred years ago, wolves, mountain lions, bears, coyotes, and humans all hunted deer here. Now, all but the coyotes and the human predators are gone. The State limits hunting by humans, and coyotes only kill fawns. (But they relish fawns: research found that Cook County, Illinois coyotes’ stomachs contents are 42% small rodents; 23% fruit; 22% fawns, and 18% rabbits, with only 1% domestic cats).

Deer are bad for birds in more ways: deer suck sunflower seeds from pole-mounted bird feeders. A Google search quickly found a photo of a white-tailed deer removing nestlings, for lunch, from a savannah sparrow nest and another of a deer eating songbird eggs, plus a magazine article about deer “opportunistically feeding” on songbirds caught in nets.

The white-tailed deer are mobile as well as noble: they can traverse a frozen river, use a weir, or simply swim. They can cross M-14 using the same bridges people do. They’ll essay to race through multiple lanes of high-speed traffic, including juggernaut trucks. When they don’t make it, there are crashes, horrendous encounters that leave bloodcurdling smears of guts and fur across the road, foretold by the swerving black of braking tires, and climaxed by a recognizable body part like cloven-hoofed foreleg.

Michigan had 55,867 reported motor vehicle-deer crashes in 2010, in which 1,433 people were injured and 11 people killed (eight of those 11 were motorcycle drivers, two were passenger car drivers and one was a van driver. Such crashes occur most often in the most heavily populated counties, Kent (1,976) and Oakland (1,836). Washtenaw County had 1,174, and of our townships, Scio ranked first with 153 and Augusta last with 9. The City of Ann Arbor was the scene of 54, only four with personal injuries.

The New York Times bucks blog reported recently that the average cost to repair a car that collided with a deer was $3,171.  By that measure, the Ann Arbor crashes last year cost $171,000, and the statewide cost was well over $17 million.

There is scary potential for deer-borne disease to migrate to domestic animals, and even to people, according to the DNRE’s Deer Management Plan. Deer ticks carry Lyme disease, and Chris Graham says it requires multiple doses of antibiotics, and one cannot acquire immunity. Randy Baker knows a man in Macomb County who is on a ventilator with the disease, and of a case on the other side of the state. Were Lyme disease prevalent here, Graham predicts, a simple walk in the woods would be dangerous.

Other diseases the DNRE identifies as of concern because they can be transmitted to domestic animals and humans include epizootic hemorrhagic disease, eastern equine encephalitis, bovine tuberculosis (found in Michigan since 1975), and chronic wasting disease (CWD, found in Kent County in 2008). The DNRE says that once CWD is established it can build to high prevalence and containment, let alone eradication, is not likely. CWD is closely related to Creutzfeldt–Jakob (mad cow) disease, known to spread to humans who eat infected cows.

Baiting—leaving piles of corn, carrots, or apples near a blind to draw deer—is known, Baker said, to speed the spread of disease. The bait brings more deer together than normal, and they breathe, sneeze, and drool on the food. Hunters press the DNRE to allow baiting, which Baker thinks is both foolish and ineffective in increasing the deer harvest.

Baker also revealed another way disease could spread quickly through the state herd. Photographic evidence proves, he said, that deer eat the guts of harvested deer which hunters leave on the forest floor.

Given the known and potential harms of too many deer, what might be done? Sharpshooting is impractical and ineffective. The DNRE annually struggles to reach the right number of harvested deer, but neither the DNRE nor Randy Baker think that hunting can bring the number down much below the present over-population, because the number, and terms, of hunting licenses is the only element the DNRE can control. Other factors affecting the deer harvest include weather (deer hunker down in wind, and absent snow are harder to track), the economy, and where hunters choose to hunt. Since 1998, both the number of hunters, and of deer harvested, have declined while the deer population remained the same.

Can Hunters Control the Deer Population? Probably Not

Year

Est Deer Population

# Hunters

# Deer harvested

1998

2,000,000

800,000

580,000

2007

1,700,000

683,000

484,000

2009

2,000,000

686,000

444,000

 

The DNRE report is pessimistic about other methods of controlling the deer population. Contraception is either too expensive (dosing individuals) or too risky to other animals (salt licks laced with birth control drugs). Fences and netting work, but are expensive and not practical on a  large scale. Dogs work for small areas, but both fences and dogs just drive the deer elsewhere. Farmers with sufficiently damaged crops can get a permit to shoot the offending deer, but this is not large-scale enough. Re-introducing the natural predators—wolves, mountain lions, and bears would be impossible. Anyway, says Baker, “wolves are too smart to live with so many humans.”

Baker suggests what he laughingly calls a “politically impossible” solution: re-instate commercial hunting, which has been illegal for well over a century. “Commercial hunting,” he said, means allowing licensed individuals to sell the deer they harvest, a complex undertaking given existing state and federal law. It would require licensing, inspection, reporting, and taxing mechanisms. Sport hunters would, Baker predicts, object strenuously, as would animal rights advocates, and perhaps even the existing purveyors of other kinds of meat.

It seems the DNRE cannot balance the competing interests of hunters, farmers, gardeners, and animal lovers enough to set a goal for the deer population of Washtenaw County. There seems little hope then, that could they set a goal, they could achieve it. Perhaps only a paradigm-shifting event like a serious outbreak of disease can create pressure to find a way to reduce the deer population. Meantime, home gardener, there is always a dog, a fence, stinky spray, or perhaps your own bear.

##################

SOURCES

Chris Graham, Oak Arbor landscaping, 734-975-7800

Randy Baker, Natural Endeavors, www.naturalistendeavors.com/   810-793-2140.

 

Hickie, P.  1937.  Four deer produce 160 in six seasons.  Mich. Conserv. 7:6-7, 11.

www.michigantrafficcrashfacts.org/

Fewer deer car collisions but they cost more:The bad news is that the average cost of damage from deer encounters went up by more than 2 percent over last year, to $3,171. Your auto insurance policy will generally cover such repairs, but there’s usually a deductible that you’ll pay out of pocket.  From http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/deer-car-collisions-less-frequent-but-more-costly/

 

Michigan Deer Management Plan, 2010. Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Wildlife Diision Report 3512.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creutzfeldt%E2%80%93Jakob_disease

 

DNRE “Worksheet for establishing deer population goals—DMU 081 2006-2010”

Great website for deer in Michigan from all perspectives, a joint DNRE and MSU project, and way to locate the DNRE documents: http://deer.fw.msu.edu/

 

MSU research on crop loss and use of fencing to prevent it:

http://anrcom.msu.edu/news/article/deer_exclusion_fencing_on_michigan_farms

 

 

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4 Comments

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  1. Deer Sightings Map – Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance
  2. Deer Problem in Washtenaw County – Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance

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