No joke: Ann Arbor is removing deer ovaries. Lawmakers aren’t laughing.

This deer was among those tagged and sterilized as Ann Arbor tries to limit health hazards and nuisances caused when the creatures wander into areas where shooting off limits. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Sonen)

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

Ann Arbor is hardly alone with its deer dilemma. Michigan is home to some 1.75 million deer, and they’re involved in about 50,000 car crashes per year.

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, 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?” 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.

Buck parade

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.

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Wed, 03/14/2018 - 8:40am

Cities like Ann arbor and my own ban hunting even where it can be safely done to bend over for whining animal worshipers. Then are surprised by increased numbers of car/deer accidents and what and how much they eat. Being good liberals they double down on their stupidity. Amazing how these "Progressive Paradises" can always find funds for what they really want to do no matter how far fetched. Remember this when they're whining about insufficient revenue sharing.

CA Simpson
Mon, 04/16/2018 - 10:52pm

Typical sociopath conservative. Did you even read the article? I guess you’d rather just shoot the place up rather than come to a reasonable, long term solution. I hope you aren’t breeding and passing on your ignorant, mean spirited attitude.

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 10:01am

Sterilize them, shoot them, do whatever it takes to control them. Two friends have become seriously ill with Lyme disease. Deer destroy vegetation. They cause fatal car crashes. Get over your Bambi ideas. Do something constructive. Humans and their environment are more important than deer.

Rob Pollard
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 10:55am

Did Matt and Diane even read the story?

They are sterilizing them; they are shooting them. The story literally says, "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. The other prong — (involves) sterilizing some female deer through ovariectomies."

Cindy Simpson
Mon, 04/16/2018 - 10:55pm

Thank you for noticing, as I did, the utter lack of comprehension of those two “Commentators.” Knee jerk reactions by knee jerk people who probably couldn’t put two thoughts together. Jeez.

Peter Eckstein
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 12:00pm

Another stooge for the NRA-MUCC who wants to abolish local control over any issue that doesn't suit his masters.

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 1:48pm

Rob, the point is it was legal to hunt deer in my community and a good number of folks did, costing the city NOTHING! Then whining started and they passed a ordinance that I couldn't even on my own property or on parcels where one could get permission, which held a good number of deer. Surprise surprise deer/car collisions are common around those properties. I'd suspect there are similar situations in Ann Arbor.

Bernie Banet
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 1:54pm

Cornell University has now added to its urban deer management tools the approach of dart-and-euthanize. Deer are captured with the same darting technique used in Ann Arbor's sterilization study, but then, instead of ovariectomy surgery, the deer are euthanized with a drug or with a captive-bolt gun. This method removes deer more effectively than sterilization from a neighborhood herd while still addressing concerns about using lethal firearms or bows near homes or other buildings. Michigan DNR does not yet accept dart-and-euthanize for deer management, but probably should now give it serious consideration. Culls via sharpshooting in parks and large private parcels plus dart-and-euthanize in residential neighborhoods might turn out to be the best combination for situations such as Ann Arbor's.

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 4:04pm

If the objective is to achieve the most expeditious relief from the marauders, simply dispense with the surgery. Tranquilize them, collect them and euthanize them. What am I missing here ? Why treat pests like community pets ?

Mark H.
Thu, 03/15/2018 - 9:29am

With such a renewable resource, I sure hope the culled deer are being processed into venison for the local food banks. I'm more than sure there are dozens of needy families in Washtenaw Co. that could benefit from this organic, free ranging protein. If White Buffalo is just throwing the deer in the dump that's a whole other issue.

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 5:10pm

I am not sure where Bridge got it's information from regarding the deer in Ann Arbor. It fails to mention that deer are being hunted by sharp shooters within the city, in neighborhoods and public parks as well as on U of M's campus. There are people out and walking here at all hours. There has been no evidence that there is a deer problem in Ann Arbor. Just a few wealthy citizens that want their landscaping protected. There are numerous studies that show this kind of killing does not cut down on deer/vehicle collisions. The sterilization program was an attempt to mollify both people concerned about killing deer within the city limits and those who want the deer decimated. If Bridge had done it's homework, this article could have had a very different tone. Sorry, but I am very disappointed with the obvious bias of this article.

William Rekow
Mon, 03/19/2018 - 2:15am

So... How about bow hunting? It's very popular here, and would solve the problem with shooting high powered rifles or shotguns in an urban area.