Elinor Holbrook has lived at her home in East Lansing’s Lantern Hill neighborhood since 1967. Until about 10 years ago, deer were never a concern.
In the last decade, however, Holbrook said deer have established a “regular cycle” on the properties on her side of Lantern Hill Road, just south of Patriarche Park. On a snowy winter morning, she outlined fresh, muddy deer tracks running alongside her house, near trees and shrubs she’d rigged with netting up to 9 feet high to prevent the creatures from ravaging her garden. Other deterrents have been ineffective, she explained.
“Our area is now one of their passageways. We all have contiguous lawns, no fences, lots of trees and bushes and mature vegetation in our gardens, and we’ve seen as many as 15 deer at once in the block last year,” Holbrook said. “They’re happy, they’re breeding, there’s plenty to eat, so it’s very nice for them, and they’ve decided they’re not going to move.”
Holbrook’s experience is part of a wider problem. Many Michigan cities are grappling with a statewide deer population that has surpassed 2 million. After Texas, Michigan has the nation’s biggest deer population, according to World Population Review.
East Lansing began control efforts in 2012, when the Parks and Recreation Department unveiled its first residential deer survey.
Every year since, the department has issued an annual deer management report, bolstered by community input surveys and cameras that detect deer activity. It also hosted community deer management meetings in 2014, 2019 and 2022, resulting in a handful of ordinances. One, adopted in 2014, prohibits residents from feeding the deer. The state followed suit four years later.
In 2021, the city entered into a service agreement with the U.S. Agriculture Department to assign professional sharpshooters to conduct a controlled culling of some of the city’s deer. The program, which costs about $20,000 a year, was made was made possible in a 2016 ordinance that allowed exceptions to the city’s prohibition on hunting in parks.
In the three culls that have occurred since — in January 2021 and 2022 and March of this year — U.S.D.A. hunters have brought down 193 deer in the city over the course of 10 total nights. The meat from these kills, which totaled 6,700 pounds of venison, was donated to the Greater Lansing Food Bank.
The culls will now continue through at least 2025 after they were approved by the City Council on a 4-1 vote on Nov. 28, with Councilman Erik Altmann voting against after his motion to exclude controlled culls from the program was struck down by the same margin. The rest of the Council opted for a limited cull capped at 80 deer per year.
“I’m still looking for evidence that the current deer population is damaging our public lands. If we don’t have evidence that deer are killing our forests, I don’t want to kill deer,” Altmann said.
Cheryl Marsh, owner of Nottingham Nature Nook, was the only resident to speak against the cull at the meeting, citing 10 does in her area who have produced just three fawns among them this year.
“I believe that the herd in my area self-regulate, and they know what is enough,” she explained.
Between public comment and the vote, Parks and Recreation Director Catherine DeShambo presented this year’s deer management report. She was joined by three fisheries and wildlife researchers from Michigan State University.
To estimate how the deer population has changed because of the culls, the latter three have utilized footage from city-placed video cameras that capture motion-triggered images. Students reviewing the footage counted the number of deer at each, comparing those rates with data collected since 2019. Last year, they deployed 17 cameras for an average of 112 days. Most were put up at parks and on trails, but three were set up at residences, including Holbrook’s. Between Aug. 19 and Dec. 20, 2022, the deer count on Holbrook’s half-acre property was 943.
While DeShambo said it would take two to five years “to see measurable impacts,” of the culls, Warwick noted that the data indicates some progress. This year, Warwick said all but two cameras registered fewer deer than in 2019. The Harrison Meadows neighborhood saw a slight increase, while White Hills stayed the same.
Resident Lynn Richardson, a hunter who said she was a “vocal opponent” of the deer cull “as recently as last year,” told the Council she now supports it. She cited “reports indicating that there are more white-tailed deer now than when our country was first founded.”
“The sad result of this overpopulation includes the almost inevitable deer car crashes. Indeed, I think one cannot truly claim to be a Michigander unless one has had a close encounter with the deer while driving,” Richardson said, adding that “the cull has significantly reduced these adverse events.”
Michigan ranks fourth among all states in deer-vehicle collisions, with the 58,984 instances recorded in 2022 injuring 1,400 and killing five Michiganders, according to DeShambo. It was a 13% increase, up from 52,218 in 2021.
DeShambo cited 18 of these in East Lansing over the last year, with 20 reported in 2021, 28 in 2020 and 27 in 2022. This phenomenon is reflected in the Lansing area’s auto insurance premiums, which average $2,900. The state average of $3,000 is the highest in the country and well ahead of the national average of $1,500.
The threat of Lyme disease is another concern. The disease is frequently carried by adult blacklegged ticks who seek out white-tailed deer as hosts. To address this, MSU wildlife researcher Matt Buchholz has started testing a medication delivery device, made from alfalfa and molasses, that’s designed to dispense anti-tick medication when consumed. At present, he’s limited to using a placebo as his team records data on consumption trends using non-toxic dye that shows which deer have ingested the device. When it’s ready, the finished product will be brought before Council for approval.
In the meantime, as deer continue to flock to Holbrook’s garden, she said she’s noticed the numbers slowly trending downward since the culls began.
“Staff have gone out of their way to educate people, to get feedback and to do it right. Involving the DNR is important, and it’s good that we’re getting that backbone, too. I’m very happy that the Council takes this seriously,” she said.
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