What to do about Deer? Farmington Hills & Neighbors Exploring Solutions

What to do about the Deer? Farmington Hills and Neighbors Exploring Solutions

(Crystal Proxmire, October 11, 2021)

Farmington Hills, MI – At first seeing a deer walk through one’s neighborhood is a novelty, but after a while as urban deer population to grow, so do concerns about their impact.

Dozens of residents came to the Hawk, Farmington Hills’ new community center, to talk about what to do with the deer that are roaming the streets and feeding in people’s yards.

The Sept. 21, 2021 presentation included information about deer studies in the area, and options for controlling the population and mitigating the damage they do.  Deputy Special Services Director Bryan Farmer was joined on stage by DNR Deer, Elk and Moose Specialist Chad Stewart.

“We started getting calls about the deer population, car crashes,” Farmer told the crowd.  Other concerns include ticks, property damage, destroying natural areas and eating vegetation, and deer being intimidating to people or pets.

In April 2015 the city consulted with the DNR and began collecting data. Since that time, the city has logged over 200 phone calls from residents with a variety of deer concerns, as well as dozens of emails.

In 2016 there were 5,409 responses to a citizen survey with the vast majority of residents reporting landscape damage. Dead deer were also a problem, with 589 residents reporting a dead or injured deer on their property within the previous three years.

Aerial deer counts have been done since 2016, with surveyors finding 304 deer in 2016 and 729 deer in 2021, with a general upward trend.  Farmington Hills picks up between 53-105 deer corpses off roads each year.  In 2020 Oakland County reported the most deer/vehicle collisions in the state, with 1,855 crashes reported.

The problem isn’t just in Farmington Hills.  Novi and Southfield also struggle with the same issues.  The three cities met with the DNR in 2017 to discuss collaborative efforts.  Aerial studies were done in Farmington Hills and Southfield, with 2021 findings showing 1,598 deer total, with 869 being on the Southfield side.  A map shows deer populations per square mile and in some places, mainly in wooded areas and along the river, numbers show 80 or more deer.

In addition to studying populations, in 2017 Farmington Hills enacted an ordinance to ban feeding deer, though deer do still find plenty to eat in the backyards and wild areas of the community, and the population has continued to grow.

“It’s not a unique situation to Farmington Hills.  It’s not even a unique situation in Michigan,” said Deer, Elk, and Moose Specialist Stewart.  “There are deer and people conflicts around the world.”

Stewart explained that suburban sprawl pushes deer from undeveloped areas into communities.  That combined with the steady decline of those interested in hunting has contributed to the growth of herds across the state.  In 2000 there were roughly 800,000 hunting licenses.  By 2020 that number had fallen to 600,000.  “We’ve lost 200,000 deer hunters over the last 20 years,” he said.

Adding to that is the fact that “deer are extremely reproductive animals,” Stewart said.  He explained that deer in urban settings have higher survival rates because of the ample supply of vegetation (for example, yummy hosta plants in people’s backyards).  Because of the healthy conditions, there are 1.8 fawns per doe per year in a suburban area.  He talked about studies that have been done at the George Reserve which regularly show how quickly deer multiply.  In the original test four does and two bucks were introduced to the reserve, and by 1933 there were more than 160 deer in the space, and the natural vegetation was nearly destroyed.

But simply looking at the numbers doesn’t really give a clear picture of the community’s needs.  “Carrying capacity” means the number of deer an area can support before habitat degradation happens and animals start to get sick.  Stewart explained that deer will often eat native plants while leaving the invasive species they don’t like, creating an environment where invasive plants take over.  There are also diseases that affect deer and are more rapidly spread when the population is dense.

As the DNR works with communities to create deer management plans, they don’t just aim to reduce numbers, but they study the area’s need and capacity before reducing herd size.  They also try to set goals that are not just related to population size, for example they may want to track improvement in the biodiversity of wooded areas, or reduce crashes and property damage.

However, population control is also part of the conversation.

Stewart explained the different methods that are possible, as well as those that have been used but are not options in Michigan.

Hunting is an inexpensive solution that can bring economic benefits to an area with fees and tourism, however it’s not always possible in urban areas, and some people object to this option.

Sharpshooting reduced populations quickly and efficiently.  “It is safe if you go with an experienced professional or groups,” Stewart said.  “It is expensive. And it is controversial.”

Some have suggested trapping and relocating deer, however it is not allowed in Michigan for many reasons, including that it is stressful for the deer, the survival rates are low, and it can help spread disease.

Another idea is contraception – ie, birth control.  The benefit is that it’s not lethal.  However it’s not approved in Michigan and there are many challenges such as the cost.  Hand injection is required and animals need ongoing boosters.   It also is only proven effective in closed populations.

Sterilization has also been tried in other places, including Ann Arbor.  In 2018 the State of Michigan banned sterilization with a sunset date of April 1, 2022.  It’s unclear if the legislature will renew the ban or not.  Sterilization is expensive and only works if large percentages of animals in herds are sterilized.

Others have suggested reintroducing predators.  This can get complicated, and is viewed as socially unacceptable, and the DNR won’t entertain that idea.

Fencing and repellents can help mitigate deer damage, and is something the DNR may include in plans.  “It can exclude deer and it’s relatively inexpensive,” he said.  “But there are no guarantees.”

In short, “There is no solution that is easy, effective, and immediate,” Stewart said. “If there was we would not be here today.”

So, what happens next?

Farmington Hills is joining forces with Southfield and Novi to research specific community needs and come up with a plan.  Stewart said a plan will set goals that are not just based on population numbers, but on addressing problems like crashes, ecological conditions, and health.  “The emphasis should be on the impact of the deer, not on the number of deer…Even five deer can impact a community.  However you can have 500 deer in a community and people don’t mind, then maybe you don’t have too many deer,” he said.  “There is always contention around a deer number.”

Farmington Hills mayor Vicky Barnett was in the audience for the presentation. When it was suggested that the city being sharp shooting, she called out to make sure people knew the city is not advocating for that at this time.  After the presentation, we asked Mayor Barnett for her take on the meeting.

“Last night we hosted Chad Stewart of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as he presented several options for managing deer overpopulation — the good, the bad and the ugly. He also discussed how to proceed with a deer management plan and how that process can work on both a city and regional basis. Chad then answered questions from the audience. His presentation was excellent an provided a great overview of the problem,” she said.

“Our next steps will be to gather data and assess what and where our current problems exist so we can begin to form a task force in order to develop possible solutions to each separate issue. These issues include deer/car crashes, small animal habitat destruction, disease and homeowner landscape damage. There are probably several more issues that will come up as we mover forward. We have not yet established a timeline for developing the management plan. That will come after we complete our fact-finding.”

DNR will be working with the communities, and residents will be updated as there are opportunities for engagement. There are numerous resources available on the City of Farmington Hills website.


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