by John Hayes
In Mount Lebanon, Penn., White Buffalo, the same Connecticut-based animal management organization contracted to reduce deer density in Ann Arbor, was refused permission by the state to use the same experimental, two-pronged deer population control program used this past Feb. in several Ann Arbor parks and nature areas. In areas where sharpshooting was impractical, female deer were darted and their ovaries surgically removed.
In Ann Arbor, social media complaints have accused Ann Arbor officials of persecuting deer to protect the flower gardens of influential residents.The protests expanded to include denial that a deer problem exists, challenges to municipal statistics, pro-deer fundraising drives and colorful street protests that attracted animal rights activists from out of town. Sharpshooting culls were disrupted, baiting sites were compromised and lawsuits entered the courts. But none of that stopped the killing in a deer control program.
Wildlife managers and elected officials in Mt. Lebanon, Penn. were met with the same types of resistance last year, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission refused to license the experimental project.
“It’s good science and the [Ann Arbor council members] are open-minded about alternative solutions to the urban deer problem,” said Tony DeNicola, founder and executive director of White Buffalo. “They caught tremendous amounts of flak but didn’t cave in to the politics. They stayed focused on the science.”
Ann Arbor City Council is expected shortly to release White Buffalo’s final report on the program’s inaugural season, which ended several weeks ago.
Mt. Lebanon, with some 33,000 people living in a 6.06-square-mile municipality, is different in structure and character than Ann Arbor. But like many urban communities across the U.S., both allowed prolific white-tailed deer to overwhelm their wild places, eat the habitat needed by every other animal and create a nuisance or worse for humans. Mr. DeNicola compared Mt. Lebanon’s deer density, estimated at nearly 100 per square mile, to the population in one of Ann Arbor’s two study areas, estimated at 87 deer per square mile.
“Also [the communities are similar in] the ways the deer and human populations are right against each other in areas where shooting the deer just isn’t practical,” he said.
A Pennsylvania animal-welfare foundation briefly considered bankrolling the expensive deer management experiment when Mt. Lebanon commissioners decided they couldn’t foot the bill. Ann Arbor approved a payment of $160,000, plus another $100,000 in related costs, for one year of an experiment that Mr. DeNicola said should last three to five years.
“The biggest difference is that in Pennsylvania the Game Commission denied us a permit and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources approved the experiment,” he said.
It was the first time the Michigan DNR had sanctioned the surgical sterilization of wild deer.
Elected officials in both communities were faced with the impacts of deer overbrowsing, negative human-deer interactions and deer-vehicle collisions. Mt. Lebanon commissioners quantified their problem by focusing primarily on the traffic issue. They sanctioned a controlled archery hunt and sharpshooting cull intended to reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 50 percent in five years.
Collisions on the road are a concern in Ann Arbor — 42 in 2011, 51 in 2014 according to a municipal website — but communications manager Lisa Wondrash said the community is particularly proud of its 11 parks, two nature areas and wooded tracts owned by the University of Michigan, where overbrowsing deer are destroying the greenery. The primary concern there is the regeneration of the natural areas.
“We put out a citizen survey this year,” said Tom Crawford, Ann Arbor chief financial manager and deer project manager. “We’re asking if they support [the program]. We’re trying to get 75 percent to accept it.”
In Ann Arbor and Mt. Lebanon, many residents believe the White Buffalo “experiment” would determine whether nonlethal deer control is effective. Not so, Mr. DeNicola said. The research is more narrowly focused.
Science has known for more than 100 years that by controlling the doe population wildlife managers can control the deer population. Where killing the females isn’t practical for a variety of reasons, a long-term sterilization regimen has been proved to reduce deer density.
“The one part that hasn’t been fully researched is the impact of deer migration,” Mr. DeNicola said. “If you sterilize all the does in a given area, how long before unsterilized does enter the control area and have fawns? Roughly half [of the fawns] will be female and you’d have to start the program all over again.”
To keep fertile does out of the survey zones, each test area was adjacent to properties subject to a sharpshooting cull, the second prong in the Ann Arbor study.
During the last week of January, White Buffalo and volunteers darted 54 whitetail does and carried them to a makeshift clinic. Veterinarians removed their ovaries, clipped ID tags onto their ears and fitted some with radio transmitters to chart their movements. Woozy and confused, the deer were returned to familiar surroundings. Cost to the community: $1,200 per deer.
Then during six days of February, sharpshooters killed 96 deer in adjacent cull zones, creating a sort of deer migration buffer between the test area and the rest of Ann Arbor.
As the theory goes, each sterilized doe will not have one to three fawns this spring. Half of those fawns would have been does, and they, too, will not give birth to one to three fawns, of which half would have been does. Preventing one doe from reproducing removes many deer in time.
In Ann Arbor and Mt. Lebanon, some deer management opponents talk about “rebound effect,” in which animals compensate for a low-birth year class by increasing the number of births in subsequent years. It has long been known to wildlife biologists that urban deer that safely feed in backyard smorgasbords with no threat to adults from predators, generally breed at maximum capacity. They are physically unable to “rebound” and bear a larger number of young.
Last year in Ann Arbor, sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 63. “That didn’t go over so well,” Mr. Crawford said. “That’s when we had most of the protests. We were hearing from the community that they wanted nonlethal means. For some of them, they’re not counting on science. It’s a belief system and they’re never going accept killing animals despite the cost to the community.”
Mr. DeNicola said following the USDA cull, and presenting his program as a combination of lethal and nonlethal means, made it easier for Ann Arbor to accept.
“I wouldn’t say we learned from the Mt. Lebanon experience,” he said. “But having a reliable nonlethal way to remove deer in places where it’s impractical to kill them, I think, made it easier for people to accept.”
In the coming months, commissioners in Ann Arbor and Mt. Lebanon will vote on including the cost of deer management in their 2018 budgets.