WEDNESDAY, Feb. 12 — The city of East Lansing is turning to federal government sharpshooters to help thin out a herd of deer that pose a growing nuisance for some local homeowners.
The East Lansing City Council voted, 3-2, last night to allow sharpshooters with the U.S. Agriculture Department of Agriculture to kill off an unspecified number of deer in city parks. The goal: reduce the size of the herd and give homeowners — and their gardens — some relief from a pesky and growing deer population in the city.
The resolution allows City Manager George Lahanas to spend up to $20,000 to jumpstart a deer management program in East Lansing. Plans call for highly trained federal sharpshooters — complete with silencers — to begin shooting and killing deer in the city during a cull that could begin as early as December, assuming the herd still needs to be thinned.
And while many local residents had voiced support for the measure, not everyone was thrilled with the concept. Animal rights activists, in particular, have been vocal in their opposition. Mayor Ruth Beier and City Councilman Aaron Stephens opposed the plan.
“We’re going to go out in the middle of the night at least three times every year to murder deer,” Beier said. “The biggest argument appears to be about landscaping, and I think that’s just ridiculous. I just can’t believe we’re actually going to be paying people to go out in the middle of the night and murder some animals. It’s crazy.”
“I went back and forth on this issue about 1,000 different times,” Stephens added. “I think we definitely needed to address the issues that people were having, but I also understood the concerns about a cull. I honestly just wanted more public input before we moved forward with this. That’s really what it came down to for me.”
Beier said that some local residents have been increasingly concerned with the city’s growing deer population and the subsequent damage the herd has done to landscaping. Although research hasn’t pointed to increased traffic crashes as a result of the growing herd, Stephens said some residents also cited auto safety concerns.
“I’m not saying I was for or against the deer cull at this point,” Stephens added. “I really just wanted some more research on the topic and more public input before we made any decisions. It’s just a very heated issue within the community. It’s not a stance I’m going to die on, but my gut just told me to vote against last night’s resolution.”
Former Mayor Mark Meadows voted for the deer management program alongside first-term Councilwomen Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock. He said the resolution leaves room for officials to find less lethal methods to control the herd, but recognized that a growing number of his constituents were demanding action.
“It was time for us to do something,” Meadows said. “We’re certainly going to be utilizing the sharpshooters, but there could still be other, friendlier options developed to help keep the deer population under control. And to me, this wasn’t about whether gardens are being destroyed. It was about proper wildlife management.”
A recent survey of fewer than 200 residents found that about 60% of residents supported a professional deer cull using lethal measures while about 39% opposed it. Another survey indicated that about 54% of respondents “strongly supported” a lethal deer cull.
Stephens said the City Council briefly considered sending the issue to the ballot before ultimately deciding to make the decision for themselves. He noted he’d still prefer to leave the decision in the hands of local voters — especially because the deer cull has the potential to become an expensive endeavor over the next few years.
“That was another reason to vote against it: We really don’t know how much this is going to cost,” Stephens added. “We set that $20,000 number as a sort of baseline because we just don’t have research to be more precise.”
Several residents spoke for and against the deer management program last night before the City Council. Beier noted that one particularly vocal animal rights activist labeled the City Council as murderers and yelled “human supremacy” before leaving the Council chambers.
“It was a little bit scary,” Beier noted. “He was calling us murderers, but that’s what this really is. It’s murder.”
Besides killing off deer in the city, Meadows insisted that other methods of herd control could include sterilization, birth control, tranquilization and relocation and the installation of more fencing. But until more research is conducted on new ways to control deer in the city, he said the program will likely be shoot to kill.
“We’re not here to eliminate deer in East Lansing. This is about managing the population,” Meadows said. “Overpopulation is an issue and, at least from what I’ve been hearing, residents want something to be done.”
As part of the recent resolution, local residents will be notified of any upcoming plans to ensure safety during the cull. The City Council also specifically directed the management program to include the donation of venison — as long as it’s safe and relatively feasible — to be made to food banks across Greater Lansing.
The city of Lansing has also had problems with nusiance deer in recent years, said Parks Director Brett Kaschinske. A DNR-funded culling effort led to sharpshooters killing 113 deer over seven nights in 2017. And as a result, more than 3,300 lbs. of venison was donated to Volunteers of America, he said.
Some Lansing residents continue to struggle with deer overpopulation, Kaschinske said, but the city has no "immediate plans" to address the issue. He anticipates it becoming a larger priority over the next few years.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include contextual details about a recent deer cull in Lansing.