The City of East Lansing will revisit in the new year its plan to hold a deer cull this winter after Councilmember Dana Watson questioned the city’s approach to the annual cull in a sharp exchange with City Manager George Lahanas.
Following a contentious 3-2 Council vote to approve culls in February 2020, the city contracted with USDA sharpshooters for the first cull in January 2021, with 65 deer killed in city parks that year. Early this year, UDSA sharpshooters conducted the second cull, killing 79 animals.
A this week’s discussion-only City Council meeting (Dec. 13), Lahanas used his “City Manager comments” period to read a formal announcement that public parks would be closed on dates to later be specified between Jan. 3 to March 31 from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. for another cull.
Lahanas’ announcement left Watson visibly surprised, as she was not aware the cull was already scheduled to happen. The city is in the midst of seeking input from citizens on the issue of deer. Just last week, on Dec. 7, the city held an informational meeting on the cull that was open to the public, drawing 40-50 people, and the city is still in the process of distributing surveys for public feedback.
“It seems strange to get public remarks on something that we’re going forward with in the same fashion [as the past],” Watson said. “I thought we were going to get an understanding from the public and, again, have an opportunity to see if we should be in the same place or if we shouldn’t be in the same place.”
Lahanas said he is following Council’s direction by holding the cull because the motion passed in 2020 was to hold an annual cull.
The motion passed in 2020 was “to authorize the city manager to conduct a deer management program which may include but is not limited to utilization of the United States Department of Agriculture’s professional sharpshooters and to engage others to ensure, where feasible, donation of venison, when determined to be safe for eating, to local food pantries and subject to appropriate notification to the East Lansing community of the management problem to be utilized, prior to commencement of the program.“
That motion was supported by Mark Meadows, Jessy Gregg, and Lisa Babcock, with Ruth Beier and Aaron Stephens voting against.
After Lahanas read his announcement Tuesday, Watson immediately questioned the timing of the public notice, considering Council will not meet again until Jan 10. She noted the issue had not been on the agenda.
“I didn’t expect that this announcement was going to come today, knowing that we’re not going to meet again, knowing that the public comment is going on right now and we have no idea where we landed with that or what other suggestions are coming around the deer cull,” she said.
Watson continued, saying she would like to know more about what is happening with the deer population in East Lansing.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the deer as far as – are we seeing an increase?” she asked. “Are we seeing a decrease? Is this necessary?”
Watson wondered why the public input process didn’t happen sooner, so Council could take action to respond to feedback.
“Why would we start this public conversation so late in the game if you knew you were going to mention the cull starting January 3?” she asked. “Why didn’t this begin sooner so that we could understand where people were at or what discussions are being had?”
Lahanas reiterated he is following Council’s direction and said he will continue to do so unless Council directs him to do otherwise.
“We have clear direction from Council to continue with the deer cull, so unless I hear otherwise, we’re going to keep continuing. It’s a deer management program that will occur every year,” he said. “This is clearly implementing Council’s direction. If Council has new direction, just let me know.”
Watson said she believes if the City is going to kill a high volume of deer every year, this is a discussion that should be held annually. She said she does not know the solution to the problem, but would like to see updated information and community feedback on the topic. She asked for data that could speak to whether objectives are being met, objectives like reduction of car-deer crashes and deer-borne disease.
The exchange between Watson and Lahanas was unusual in its protracted tension. Council is responsible for the hiring, contracting with, and firing of the city manager, and this kind of acrimonious back-and-forth between a council member and the city manager is unusual. Typically, Lahanas has deferred to his bosses. But in this case, he stuck to his position.
Responding to Watson’s remarks, Councilmember Lisa Babcock asked if Lahanas knew what days the cull would be happening. Lahanas said there are no days penciled into the calendar at this point, and it depends on weather conditions and the availability of the sharpshooters.
Mayor Ron Bacon then said there is not a big difference between having the earliest cull date on Jan. 3, or a week later after Council reconvenes. He suggested putting the topic on the Jan. 10 meeting agenda, so Council has a chance to receive feedback and make a decision on whether or not to hold the cull.
Without a formal vote, Bacon indicated he expects the cull to wait and expects city staff to come to Council on Jan. 10 with feedback from citizens and information about the deer and the culls. So, the cull will wait.
“This is one of those subjects that elicits a lot of feelings,” he said. “We have every authority to move forward with that, but people want to be heard… I know anything with deer would fill up half the room.”
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