Showdown at Deer Park
May 27, 2016A 70-year-old deer enclosure in Harbor Springs has divided the town
This November, voters will decide the fate of the Harbor Springs Deer Park, an attraction that’s both dearly beloved and much-maligned.
The two-acre enclosure, which was created in 1946 to house injured deer, allows children come face-to-face with one of northern Michigan’s signature creatures. But since a handful of residents witnessed the fallout of a 2011 deer cull, a faction has argued that the place is not only an outdated relic but also a way station for deer on the path to slaughter.
SPARKED BY BULLETS AND BLOOD
The discord stems from a fact of nature: When you enclose a herd of animals inside a fence, people eventually must intervene to manage them.
The sides for and against the park each started Facebook pages last year, and their descriptions of what happened on Dec. 6, 2011— when a city police officer culled the herd with a rifle — vary as widely as their opinions of the park itself.
On the Close the Harbor Springs Deer Pen page on Facebook, the event is described as gruesome. Janice Elliot, spokeswoman for the group, said she was horrified when she drove by and saw a police sharpshooter taking out deer.
“The animals were throwing their bodies against the fence and trying get out,” Elliot said.
According to the Save the Harbor Springs Deer Park page, however, it was Elliot’s reaction that prompted the mayhem.
“A resident drove by, witnessed the act, and began honking the horn on her vehicle, which ultimately spooked the deer and caused a reasonable amount of chaos among the animals during the culling process,” the page reads.
When contacted, the page administrator replied that he did not want to comment; messages to other members were not returned.
Harbor Springs City Manager Tom Richards, who’s been on the job for seven years, said the 2011 culling was the first time in his tenure that the herd required thinning. Richards said he doesn’t know the history of the practice but said while he was overseeing the program, the culling was as quick and humane as possible, and the meat was donated to a food bank.
HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE
Elliot believes the city wanted to keep the deer culling a secret. Richards said the unpleasant job may not have been advertised, but it wasn’t a secret.
“Obviously, we don’t make a big deal out of the fact that we’re going to go out and kill a few deer,” Richards said. “But we don’t do this in the dead of night or anything like that. Everything we do is out in the open.”
Elliot said the dispute has divided her small town, and it has caused friction between neighbors.
“People feel like there’s a noose hanging over their head,” Elliot said. “It’s a really small community. … Face-to-face, it’s difficult to get people to be honest.”
What makes the argument about the deer park so raw? City council member Al Dika guessed it’s emotions and politics.
Dika is a bit skittish on the issue; he agreed to answer questions about the park only via email.
“The deer park was here when I moved to town in 1976,” he wrote. “My kids loved it, my grandkids love it. Most of the residents with longevity in the greater community have told me they would like the park to stay.”
Dika believes the community is split 50- 50 on the park, but said he has complicated feelings about the attraction’s future.
“I don’t believe it is a necessity to close the deer park,” he wrote. “I think it needs to be managed differently, better.”
Dika said he supports keeping the park open — with one caveat: He said he believes people need to understand that supporting the deer park means supporting the tough decisions that have to be made to run the park effectively.
HUNT FOR A SOLUTION
The 2011 incident prompted a moratorium on deer killing. But that moratorium posed a significant problem: The Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials had long since determined the population should be no more than 10 deer; left unchecked, the herd would grow to 20 or more inside the small enclosure.
City officials sought alternatives. They experimented with a contraceptive program, shooting some does with birth control darts. But that brought its own problems.
According to observations posted in the Save the Park Facebook page, the practice affected the deer’s behavior. Also, the goal of the birth control darts was to slow rather than stop deer population growth; they wanted some fawns. But they found that even with the darts, they could not maintain control of the population size.
Last year, the city entered a contract with Storm’s End Whitetails, a deer breeding farm in Gaylord. Storm’s End manages the Harbor Springs herd by removing deer and replacing them at a rate that maintains the population’s numbers.
But just as city officials thought they had an amenable solution, observers discovered that some of the bucks removed from the deer park would be subject to staged, paid hunts at Storm’s End. That led to the loudest calls yet for the park to close.
Dika said he is uncomfortable with the arrangement.
“I don’t like the practice of sending our deer to a hunting camp in Gaylord after raising them in captivity,” Dika wrote. “If we can harvest the deer to maintain a healthy herd and distribute the harvested meat at the food banks as we have in the past, I will be inclined to vote to keep the park.”
Dika said he may vote to close the park if it turns out the meat cannot be used at food banks. He said whatever the terms of the deer park’s operation, they should be spelled out before the Nov. 8 election.
“I know having a good plan in place, or a bad plan, will help me make up my mind,” he wrote.
A MAJORITY OF THE MINORITY
Jeff James was the lone council member who in January voted against putting the question up for a popular vote.
James said the city council should have decided the matter themselves. They could have voted to keep or close the park.
“We were elected to make tough decisions,” James said. “It was a tough decision, and they didn’t want to make that tough decision.”
James believes voters will likely opt to let the park remain. That’s conventional wisdom around Harbor Springs, but it doesn’t mean that most of the residents support the park. There is an unusual dynamic at play in the affluent resort town: Most of its residents are seasonal and are not locally registered to vote. There’s talk that if seasonal residents could vote, they’d elect to close the park.
Council member Matt Bugera believes the city should take into account the will of seasonal residents.
Bugera, who happens to support the park, proposed including an informal ballot with the tax bills so that, rather than 1,000 registered voters deciding the issue, 10,000 property owners could weigh in.
“We don’t work for the voters, we work for the taxpayers, and I suggested that they send out a card with the tax bill and do a vote that way,” Bugera said.
James is also frustrated that many seasonal residents who oppose the deer park will not have a say.
“I think everybody should have the right to vote on this issue,” he said.
Dika defended the council’s decision to put the matter before the voters, saying the park is owned by the taxpayers, and so taxpayers should decide its fate. That summer residents who pay a lot of taxes are not able to vote in local elections is an unfortunate consequence of state law, he said.
A CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE “PEN”
Elliot said 530 people have signed a petition to close the what her group calls a “deer pen.”
She said she is frustrated by what she sees as a longstanding lack of transparency about the operation of the park. She believes the city always has hidden the deer kills, and that enlightened, compassionate people naturally would oppose the park because they would see it’s unseemly to contain animals in enclosures and hunt captive deer.
Elliot, who is a registered Harbor Springs voter, said her group will mount an organized campaign before the referendum.
James also would like to see the park closed.
“I think it’s antiquated. If you go down and look at the deer, they’re living in a mud pile,” he said. “There’s plenty of deer out in the open if you want to see them.”
James believes the reaction of some residents to the possibility that the park could close was out of proportion to what the park represents — it’s not a memorial or a sacred place, he said. If it closed, he believes, people would barely remember three months later.
James said the arguments mirror those surrounding the removal of the little-used tennis courts on the waterfront a couple of years ago. That proposal brought strong opposition, he said, but once it was done, people seemed to forget that the tennis courts ever had been there and appreciated the added open space near the shore.
He said there has not been a lot of discussion about what would happen to the deer park property if it closed. He said it would become, at least initially, green space.
THE PAID HUNT QUESTION
The connection between the deer park and Storm’s End adds another layer of controversy.
Storm’s End is not paid to manage the herd, but because Harbor Springs pays for the park, opponents believe that means the city is subsidizing paid deer hunts. In recent years, the deer park has cost the city $6,000 to $13,000 per year to operate.
A representative at Storm’s End did not respond to a message seeking comment.
James said he thought the Storm’s End plan sounded good until he learned the details.
“I thought it was a great move; [the owner] was going to bring deer in here, he was going to take care of them, and then he was going to do whatever he was going to do with them,” he said.
Then he learned that some of the deer were to be hunted.
“Tell your kids and your grandkids that, and see how much they like the deer park,” he said.
The park has not always been a source of controversy.
Fred Geuder was city manager from 1988 through 2009, and he said he doesn’t recall people complaining about the park or the way it was operated.
“I don’t think there was really any controversy at the time — if we had to eliminate a couple of deer, we did, and they were always well cared for,” he said. “I personally thought that it wasn’t a bad thing. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect thing. I took my grandsons there to see deer up close, and I suspect a lot other people did, too.”