For the past decade, Kurt Sonen has poured much of his sweat and time into restoring a 7-acre preserve in Ann Arbor — removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn shrubs to accommodate oaks, dogwoods and musclewoods native to the area.
He’s had to learn the hard way to guard against interlopers. Years ago, he brought home a shingle oak and placed it in a freshly dug hole, still in its pot. The next morning, its leaves were gone. A deer had gobbled them up.
“I hadn’t even planted it,” Sonen, 51, recalled with frustration.
That deer had plenty of hungry friends, and their numbers have since surged in Sonen’s neighborhood and beyond. They have torn up lawns and forced gardners to say Hasta la vista to their hostas. Majestic or not, the deer bring serious threats as well: collisions with cars and a propensity to carry ticks that could transmit Lyme disease.
Frustrated with the hooved invasion, Sonen was among the Ann Arborites who clamored for a plan. Last year, the city rolled one out following an emotional debate. But the solution — which includes sterilizing some deer by removing their ovaries at a cost of about $1,200 per deer — is causing a ruckus outside of Ann Arbor, and prompting legislation in the state Capitol to ban the practice.
Depending on who you ask, sterilization is either a useful, last-ditch attempt to control deer populations in areas where hunting and sharpshooting isn’t safe – or a reckless affront to hunters.
“When you have too many deer in Michigan, you shoot more deer. You don’t put them to sleep and take their ovaries out and let them go again,” said state Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, a hunter who has introduced legislation to bar the sterilization of any wild animals in Michigan.
Caught in the middle is the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The agency has never allowed sterilization for controlling wildlife populations, and it does not formally endorse the method. But after seeing no viable alternative for culling the herds in Ann Arbor, the agency issued a permit for three years of real-world research into ovary removals.
“We don’t like this. This isn’t where we want to be. But they put together a sound proposal, we reviewed it extensively, and decided it was worth giving it a shot,” Stephen Beyer, who supervises the DNR’s research section, told Bridge Magazine. “We just kind of felt like we had run out of other options.”
Trimming the herds
Many cities — particularly those in metro Detroit — face tough questions about what to do when too many deer hunker down in neighborhoods where they find easy access to food and no wild predators.
But Ann Arbor is a unique case, and “represents one of the most challenging situations for deer managers,” according to a report by Connecticut-based White Buffalo Inc., the nonprofit the city contracted to address the problem.
The city is nearly “built-out” with most of its land area covered by single-family homes surrounded by wooded corridors, the report said. That simultaneously offers a prime habitat for the deer and limited options for shooting them. Parts of the city hold nearly 100 deer per square mile, according to surveys.
So with DNR’s blessing, Ann Arbor is pouring some $370,000 dollars in 2018 alone into a multi-pronged approach to trim its deer population. One piece of the plan involves killing up to 250 deer via sharpshooting in open spaces. Some of those are already carried out.
The other prong — sterilizing some female deer through ovariectomies — has stirred more statewide debate.
The city’s 2018 plan set goals for darting, capturing and sterilizing up to 26 deer atop of the 54 deer already wrangled in 2017. In January, MLive.com published a gallery of the unusual images of the does — blindfolded, unconscious, tongues out, tied to tables — as physicians removed their ovaries in an operating room set up at a local golf course.
The idea triggered headshakes and snickers from those who see it as reinforcing Ann Arbor’s weird, liberal reputation.
“Is surgically sterilizing deer the most Ann Arbor thing ever?” MLive.com asked its readers in January. (More than 85 percent of poll clickers agreed #ThisIsSoAnnArbor.)
Another headline reported that “Sterilized Ann Arbor deer may get yoga mats to help with recovery.” (They did, because stores were sold out of camping mats.)
Among conservationists, sterilization is no laughing matter.
“We believe this might be one step in sort of dismissing hunting as a necessary tool for wildlife management,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which touts more than 40,000 hunters, anglers, trappers and conservationists statewide. “We fundamentally don’t believe that sterilization should be a tool in the toolbox.”
A ban on sterilization?
Cole, the state lawmaker, introduced House Bill 5321 in January, waxes poetically about the joy of hunting. He first bowhunted at age 12 and has since helped his wife and two of three young daughters nab their first deer. Before laying out his bill to a committee, he ate a ziplocked bag full of smoked venison backstrap.
“I’d venture to guess you’d have a waiting list of sportsmen that would like to come to urban areas to help with the overpopulation problem,” he said.
Beyond their belief that sterilization undercuts opportunities for hunting, supporters of Cole’s legislation call the method overly expensive, ineffective and potentially unethical. Lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has discussed the legislation at several hearings, say they’ve been inundated with messages from outdoorsfolk backing the sterilization ban.
But officials in Ann Arbor say shooting alone won’t solve their problems.
“There are areas of the city, which we cannot get into where deer get into and they don’t leave,” said Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer and lead on the deer plan.
Sonen, who also describes himself as an avid hunter, said he never expected to support deer sterilization, and he’s still not sure whether it’s the best option. But he hopes White Buffalo’s research will answer the question.
“It’s up to the DNR to figure out whether there was a downside to it,” Sonen said. “The question always is — what else are you going to do?”
Cole told Bridge he may tweak the bill to allow Ann Arbor to finish its project before enacting the ban. And if the research showed sterilization held promise for jam-packed cities?
“We can take a look at that,” he told Bridge, adding that he doubted that would happen.
Deer as homebodies
Cole offered a simple alternative for limiting deer in dense neighborhoods: Kill more deer where shooting is allowed to keep them from wandering into urban sanctuaries.
Some experts say that wouldn’t work, at least not in communities like Ann Arbor, where many neighborhoods sit far away from open lands available for shooting. That’s because deer do not disperse like gas molecules, spreading out evenly to fill empty spaces.
“Female deer are very fixed on where they were born,” William Porter, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in behavior ecology and wildlife population dynamics, told Bridge. “More than 95 percent of them stay where they were born for life.”
While working years ago in New York, Porter’s research team removed more than a dozen does from one spot, creating a void on the landscape. They examined whether radio-tagged females elsewhere would migrate into the vacancy, seeing as how it offered no competition for food.
They did not, and the dearth of deer persisted over the five years of the project, Porter said.
More recently, Porter’s MSU research team found similar results in Meridian Township, a suburb of Lansing.
Sonen said the same deer in his Ann Arbor neighborhood tend to stick around. He noticed the trend after researchers tagged the deer, assigning each a number. He most frequently sees numbers 20, 21, 22, 29 and 31.
“If I could get rid of those five, I’d be so much better off.” Sonen said.
Porter said localizing deer management “makes a lot of sense” for Ann Arbor. But the huge challenge will be removing (or sterilizing) enough deer to make a big enough dent on the population. Doing so is difficult with any method, Porter said.
As for sterilization? Cities across the country have experimented with different forms – and contraception – for years. Some efforts haven't gone so well.
A few years ago, for example, Cornell University tried sterilization using a technique called tubal ligation. Researchers blocked the fallopian tubes of does, trying to prevent egg cells from entering the uterus. But the technique didn’t work on every deer. A few still produced fawns. And the experiment offered another surprising result: even does with blocked fallopian tubes continued to chemically signal their readiness to reproduce. The signals attracted a parade of bucks from surrounding areas, making the landscape even more crowded.
By removing the deer ovaries, Ann Arbor should avoid that fate, Porter and other experts say.
“The ovaries are gone, so the hormonal system is changed and the does don’t cycle into heat,” said Beyer, the DNR researcher.
If Ann Arbor treats enough deer and all goes as hypothesized, the sterilized deer would stay near homebase without bearing fawns, preventing outside deer from coming in. And when the sterilized deer die? Those neighborhoods would see years of relief from too many deer. Or so Ann Arborites hope.
White Buffalo is doing similar research outside of Michigan, including California, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and New York.
Tony DeNicola, the organization’s founder and president, said his crew has seen promising results in those places, where they sterilized 403 deer between 2012 and 2017. They reduced populations by an average of 27 percent one to two years after the sterilization treatment and by 49 percent three to four years later.
DeNicola said those who believe that hunting alone can solve urban deer problems don’t understand the true conditions on the ground — or how deer move around.
“I’ve been doing this a very long time, and the stupidity around the deer issue does not go away,” he said. “We’re not (sterilizing deer) just because we feel like it, we’re doing it because we’ve tried every combination of things involving hunting and not seen success.”
Some hunters fear other cities will follow Ann Arbor’s lead. But one deterrent is it costs big bucks: Ann Arbor’s 2018 budget calls for $92,000 for sterilization on top of other deer-related costs — $172,000 for culling, $66,000 for data collection and $40,000 more for education and planning.
But if the method keeps deer away for years, the city might save money and experience fewer headaches over time, said Crawford, who never expected to learn this much about deer reproduction as Ann Arbor’s top financial officer.
“I would hope that (lawmakers) would let the research continue,” he said.