Deer Management

The population size of white-tailed deer on the UM-Dearborn campus is currently at a level that is unsustainable. The high number of deer threatens wildlife and ecological conservation efforts. It also inflicts damage on the historic Jensen landscape on the grounds of the former Henry Ford Estate that is now utilized as an Environmental Study Area (ESA) by UM-Dearborn faculty and students and visited by thousands of visitors every year.  Deer also pose a health hazard by helping promote the spread of deer ticks and by endangering motorists.   

Based on the size of the campus’s ESA and adjacent green spaces that cover approximately 300-acres, the size of a sustainable deer herd lies between 5 and 10 deer, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).  A large portion of the Environmental Study Area is owned by Wayne County. The university has a legal agreement with Wayne County that calls for the university to preserve the Environmental Study Area for use for environmental interpretive programs. 

Since 2014, the EIC has conducted annual deer surveys via helicopter covering the wooded areas from Michigan Avenue along the Rouge River corridor north to Warren Avenue. Covid-19 restrictions prevented EIC staff from conducting a helicopter-based deer survey in 2021. Annual increases in deer counts were interrupted by two previous deer culls in 2015 and 2018.  From 2014 to 2019, the observed deer herd was evenly spread out from the Environmental Study Area north to Warren Avenue. Starting in 2020, however, deer have congregated in the area south of Ford Road, resulting in much higher densities in the Environmental Study Area. In 2022, 76 out of the total 86 deer were counted south of Ford Road.

The university conducted a cull in 2018, why is another deer cull necessary?

The university has determined  that a regular cull program would be necessary to protect the Environmental Study Area and investments made during the first two culls in 2015 and 2018.  The first two culls have had a large positive impact on the ecological regeneration of the area.  Deer browse on young tree saplings and prevent the replacement of native trees when they die.  Through excessive browsing, primarily on native plants, deer also promote the spread of invasive species. After the two previous culls, EIC staff observed a resurgence of native plant life including the seedlings and saplings of native trees which are critical to healthy forest generation and support a host of native birds and other wildlife. Native spring wildflowers, which were being over-browsed by deer and on the verge of being wiped out in the ESA, have rebounded. To continue this trend, it is necessary to maintain sustainable ESA deer populations in the short and long term.

Annual aerial counts of the deer population of the wooded area from Michigan Avenue north to Warren Avenue have been conducted.

  • 2014 count: 56 deer
  • 2015 count: 76 deer; 34 deer culled after count
  • 2016 count: 54 deer
  • 2017 count: 62 deer
  • 2018 count: 70 deer; 15 deer culled after count
  • 2019 count: 48
  • 2020 count: 35
  • 2021 count: canceled due to Covid-19
  • 2022 count: 86
Graph showing the number of deer by year from 2014 through 2022

Since 2014, the EIC has conducted annual aerial surveys of the deer population. In the last two survey years, unlike in earlier years, the majority of the deer were observed in the Environmental Study Area and adjacent green spaces.  In 2022, 76 out of the total 86 deer were counted south of Ford Road. This number is substantially higher than the MDNR recommendation of 5-10 deer for a space that size. The university is proposing culling up to 50 deer to bring the deer population down to 3 times the MDNR recommendations. 

What has changed since the first deer cull?

There has been a dramatic increase in native plant abundance and diversity within the Area including: native American Basswood American Elm, Bur Oak, Northern Red Oak and other tree seedlings. Numerous plants and wildflowers have also come back from near extirpation and the campus’ Community Garden program has also been sustained since the first cull.

Why can’t the university invest in a sterilization program for the deer?

Deer sterilization programs have demonstrated poor success rates in reducing the deer population.

How many more times will a deer cull need to be repeated?

The best way to control deer populations are natural predators and hunting. As the deer population rebounds, future culls are expected.  The Environment Interpretive Center staff continuously monitors the ESA and makes a recommendation regarding culls. It is expected culls will take place every 3 years to maintain a healthy deer population.

What actions have been taken by the university in the past to avoid a cull?

The UM-Dearborn Environmental Interpretive Center has been closely monitoring and assessing the effects of existing deer in the Environmental Study Area.  Plant species composition and abundance has been monitored in three 25-foot by 25-foot deer exclosures and in a controlled non-fenced area since 2010.  Results indicate greater tree sapling establishment and greater ground-story floristic diversity in the areas excluded from grazing deer.  

The university installed a 10-foot high chain link fence around the Children’s Garden in 2012 to protect the plants.

Have any of these measures helped?

The 10-foot tall fence at the Children’s Garden has been successful at keeping the deer out.   Aside from that, the damage to the gardens in general has accelerated during times with a deer population that was too numerous for the area. 

What results have been realized since the last deer cull?

The ESA had shown great evidence of rebounding. There had been a dramatic increase in native plant abundance and diversity. Population recovery was underway for an assortment of native wildflowers, trees and shrubs in the area, which has now slowed. 

The prairie restoration planting at the former Rose Garden site was on the way to becoming well established while there were fewer deer in the area.

Gardeners in the University’s Community Organic Garden had noted a marked decrease in damage until recently.  With the recent steep increase in the number of deer, gardeners have reported substantial browsing on their plots. 

What happens if the deer cull does not occur?

The Environmental Study Area is one of the few places in southeast Michigan where students can observe the ecological integrity of a native forest and all of its components. Through the various forest types in our 300-acre study area, students gain an idea of what an original southeast Michigan forest looked like. It's a great way to pass along our natural heritage to future generations through education and research.

The Environmental Study Area offers each new generation of local citizens an opportunity to enjoy and study the wonderful biological diversity of our region. It’s a place where nature is the focus, not the backdrop, of the many activities carried out within it. Each year, thousands of school children, public visitors, university students, and others gain a better understanding and appreciation of “real” nature and outdoor science by having access to this local natural treasure. Loss of native plant diversity through excessive herbivory by deer diminishes the extent and depth of that learning in ways that can never be replaced once these plants are gone.

The continuing health, abundance, and diversity of wildlife in the Area also depends upon replacing and sustaining populations of native plants. We currently have a short window of opportunity to stop, and reverse, that habitat health decline by culling the deer herd.

Another important aspect of the area is its connection to Henry Ford. A portion of it—the Jensen Landscape—is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Central to that landscape are the native trees and shrubs that were planted by Jensen as part of Mr. and Mrs. Ford’s landscape restoration efforts on their estate.  Maintaining and perpetuating good habitat health within the Jensen landscape, which also reflects and showcases Mr. Ford’s wildlife conservation values, would also benefit from reducing the over browsing pressures by deer.

The 300+ acre “island” of native plant habitat, and the rich local natural heritage it reflects, also showcases an aspect of the city of Dearborn and Wayne County that offers real distinction among the communities of southeast Michigan. It is the only actively managed urban natural area in our region with a special focus on environmental study and wildlife preservation. Maintaining its good health in our time is an important way to keep it preserved into the future.

What specifically is the harm to university research if the deer population is not addressed?

The Environmental Study Area serves as a unique and essential on-campus research station for UM-Dearborn faculty and students. Loss of native plant diversity, through over browsing by deer is quickly, and dramatically, narrowing the variety and range of field research opportunities available to UM-Dearborn faculty and students. There are no other nearby locations where university faculty can access and utilize such an interesting and varied natural space for study. 

For over 40 years, the Environmental Study Area has served numerous generations of UM-Dearborn students as an “outdoor classroom and living laboratory.” After having taken field classes, such as Field Biology, these students and alumni often remark on how special and profound it was to be afforded direct exposure to the study of living plant and animal life. Many come back with their children to share with them the diverse plant and animal life that this urban natural area still provides. Any unnecessary decline in that diversity would surely mar the quality of life in our community for future generations.

What are other risks to the campus community and visitors if the deer population is not culled?

There is a greater risk of car-deer collisions.  The number of deer-involved motor vehicle crashes in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights was the highest in 2020 in the record available online.  This increase was particularly pronounced in Dearborn.  In Dearborn and surrounding communities, the highest frequency of deer-involved collisions occurred on the roadways surrounding the Environmental Study Area.   

Graph showing the number of deer-involved motor vehicle crashes in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights from 2014 through 2020

Number of Accidents Involving Deer in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, 2014-2020.  Source: Michigan Traffic Crash Facts

Heat map showing Motor Vehicle Crashes Involving Deer, 2016-20.  Red shading in hot spot map indicates higher frequency of accidents involving deer.

Motor Vehicle Crashes Involving Deer, 2016-20.  Red shading in hot spot map indicates higher frequency of accidents involving deer. Source: SEMCOG

With larger deer populations there is also an increased risk of elevated deer tick populations.  Sampling of ticks in the ESA, conducted in May 2021 by the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife found a high number of black-legged ticks (42 juveniles and 1 adult), which are known vectors for a number of diseases, including Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. This was a dramatic increase from the previous sampling conducted by the same group in 2018, when only one black-legged tick was found. Mammals, including white-tailed deer, are natural hosts for these ticks. The Environmental Study Area hosts thousands of faculty, staff, students and visitors annually.

Are there alternatives to a deer cull?

The most effective ways to control deer populations are natural predators and hunting.

The university has researched alternatives to a cull such as installing additional fencing, which is cost prohibitive, contraception/sterilization, which has demonstrated poor success with actually lowering the deer population and tranquilizing/relocating deer, which is not permitted in the state of Michigan.

Are there organizations that approve controlled deer culls?

The American Veterinary Medical Association has approved culling by rifle as a humane form of euthanasia.

Who will cull the deer?

The university will contract with a state-certified wildlife control company that specializes in this type of work.

Can I participate in the cull?

The cull is organized and conducted by the company selected for the work.

When will the cull take place?

The cull is scheduled to take place the last week of February/first week of March. The campus is on spring break this week. Culls usually take place between 4:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

What procedures are in place so the public is safe during the cull?

The UM-Dearborn Department of Public Safety will coordinate all aspects relating to securing the cull area and ensuring campus safety. Coordination with the Dearborn Police Department and Wayne County Sheriff's Department are included in the safety plan. The cull takes place at night when deer are active and the risk to visitors in the Environmental Study Area is low. Safety is the number one priority.

What will happen to the deer harvested in the cull?

Venison harvested in the cull will be donated to local food banks. The 2015 deer cull resulted in 780 pounds of meat that was used to provide 647 meals for the hungry via Gleaners Community Food Bank. A similar amount of meat was donated to Capuchin Soup Kitchen. In 2018, 496 pounds of ground venison were donated to Gleaners Community Food Bank. That meat donation provided 412 meals to people in need. 

How much does the cull cost and how is it being paid for?

The total cost of the cull is estimated at $20,000.

The university is not using tuition dollars for the cull.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources suggests that 5 to 10 deer should be living in an area the size of the Environmental Study Area. Why is the university recommending a higher number of deer be in the area?

University scientists feel a higher number of deer can be sustained in the area. The university will be in a better position to determine the “right” number of deer for the area after monitoring the deer population after future culls. The university has also heard from the campus community that it likes to see deer on campus. By compromising on the deer population number, the Environmental Study Area will be allowed to regenerate and there is a higher likelihood that the campus community will continue wildlife viewing of deer on campus.

Similar compromises have been made at area Metro Parks.

Did the university receive permission from local government to conduct the cull?

The cull will take place on university property. The university has the authority to conduct the cull on university property and the UM-Dearborn Police Chief has the authority to waive firearm ordinances in extreme circumstances, like deer culls. The city of Dearborn has been informed about the cull.