Against the backdrop of a packed room and contentious crowd, East Lansing’s City Council revisited the issue of the controversial deer cull on Tuesday night (Jan. 10). Councilmember Dana Watson pushed forward three motions to amend practices around the cull, with two of the motions passing.
City Manager George Lahanas had been planning to proceed with this year’s cull without any discussion at Council. But his announcement of the cull’s impending start at the Dec. 13 Council meeting caught Watson by surprise, leading to a tense exchange.
At that time, Council supported Watson’s push to have the cull put on hold until discussion could occur at this week’s meeting.
Watson succeeds in getting two of three motions passed.
On Tuesday night, Watson’s first motion, to prohibit the cull from taking place at East Lansing’s Aquatic Center and Softball complex (on the north side of town), passed 3-1.
The land is near Nottingham Nature Center, where injured and orphaned deer are rehabilitated and released. Various speakers at public comment noted the irony of rehabilitating deer only to have them shot a few hundred yards away.
Mayor Ron Bacon and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg supported this motion, with Councilmember George Brookover against.
The same 3-1 split occurred for Watson’s second motion: a requirement to have a public discussion of the cull at least 14 days before a cull begins. The passed motion requires consideration of the latest science on lethal and non-lethal management methods as well as local data on deer collisions and car insurance rates, disease and more. The idea is to force regular, open discussions of the city’s deer management, including its methods, its rationales and its effects.
Watson’s third motion, to limit the total number of deer killed in the city’s cull to 80 per year, failed on a 2-2 split. Gregg sided with Watson in favor and Bacon sided with Brookover against.
The city is focusing on human data, while Michigan State University researchers are providing data on deer.
Before Council began its discussion, two people presented an update on the issue: East Lansing Director of Parks & Rec Cathy DeShambo and Wildlife Engagement Specialist Alexa Warwick from MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
DeShambo said the city has been holding public discussions about deer for over a decade now, with the cull having started two years ago. The cull employs sharpshooters from the USDA wildlife management service. Deer are baited in advance of the culls to draw them to where hunters will be, and parks are strictly closed during culls. The first cull, in January 2021, killed 65 deer, and the second, in January 2022, killed 79.
In her remarks, DeShambo made clear city staff have been focused on the question of how many deer are acceptable to humans – essentially the political problem. She spoke repeatedly about “the social capacity” in East Lansing for deer, saying it is impossible to conclude objectively what the natural capacity is.
DeShambo told Council the city measures “success” by whether deer are exceeding “wildlife acceptance capacity”of humans living in an area.
That said, the city has also collected deer collision data and provided information to the public about management strategies, like the use of deer-resistant landscaping and repellents. The city also outlawed feeding deer and has been working with Warwick to obtain data about deer activity.
DeShambo said deer-car collisions in the area are “trending downward.” But there is no way to know the cause and whether the culls have contributed to the decrease.
One thing no one disputes: The deer-human “balance” is way off in Lantern Hill.
During the public comment period of the meeting, several homeowners from the Lantern Hill neighborhood (just west of Marble Elementary School) came forward to say deer are more numerous and more destructive than ever – much worse than when the culls started.
Diane Revitte said at her home, the deer “numbers are really hard to believe” at this point. She said she loves nature, but she doesn’t love having so many deer wandering across her patio, filling her yard with excrement, and destroying plantings she tries to maintain to support other wildlife and beneficial insects.
Susan Taylor, who lives on Lantern Hill Drive, said her family enjoyed the deer when they moved to East Lansing, but now they have herds of a dozen deer showing up in the yard. She said her 2-year-old grandson and her adult son with special needs can no longer use the backyard because of concerns about Lyme disease and the prolific excrement.
“I understand there are lots of issues on both sides,” Taylor told Council, “but I want to make clear it has gotten really, really out of hand and unsafe.” She was backed by other speakers from her neighborhood.
Data collected by Warwick using a “deer cam” stationed in the Lantern Hill yard of homeowner Elinor Holbrook provided objective numbers to support the claims from that neighborhood. That deer cam has shown a ten-fold increase in deer activity in Holbrook’s yard from 2019 to 2022.
Holbrook came to the podium to emphasize this data from her home, holding up a print-out of the graph shown above. Warwick called it a “dramatic difference” – in the wrong direction.
Holbrook told Council she can’t keep plants that are good for native birds and pollinators because herds of 12 or 15 deer are decimating her yard.
“They own the yard,” Holbrook said. “It’s their yard.”
Are the culls causing problems they’re meant to solve? The data doesn’t tell us.
All in all, Warwick’s data shows mixed numbers on deer activity. But what it seems to show is that, since the culls started, deer are less numerous in city parks where they’re being hunted and possibly more numerous in residents’ yards, the cause of the most upset expressed in public comments.
Watson raised the question of whether this means the cull is doing the opposite of what is intended – basically driving deer from public parks into “safe” private yards like those in Lantern Hill. Again, cause and effect is impossible to determine from the available data.
But Cheryl Cornell-Marsh, founder and operator of Nottingham Nature Nook, told Council that scientific research on deer management “shows culls don’t work” because they create “vacuum effects” where surrounding deer move in after kills. She said culls also lead to a boomerang effect in deer reproductivity, with does having more offspring when populations are thinned. She said repellents and resistant plantings work in her garden.
“Education and compassionate conservation is the answer,” Cornell-Marsh told Council, “not chasing them in the dark with four-wheel drive vehicles and gunning them down.”
She was backed in her remarks by Kirbay Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets, who came to the podium to praise Nottingham Nature Nook’s work. Preuss strongly criticized the cull as bad for animals and humans, and she urged a more scientific approach to the cull.
Deer culls started in part amid fears about chronic wasting disease and deer starving from overpopulation. But neither of those concerns have materialized, even while about a third of citizens who voluntarily took a survey report perceiving the deer are more numerous than ever. (One third said they think the number has stayed about the same and the last third had mixed responses.)
Warwick told the city she doesn’t have any objective data on the total number of deer in or wandering through East Lansing. Her cameras look at specific areas to determine changes of behaviors in those locations.
In the end, this year’s cull will go on, with city parks closed intermittently so deer can be baited and removed by USDA contractors.
But now, after the vote to stop culling on the north side, the culls will be focused in city parks that are closer to neighborhoods relatively dense with single-family houses.
The deer killed will be tested for chronic wasting disease and then, if the meat is healthy, it will be donated to area food banks.