ROYAL OAK — With all the uneasiness the discussion of rats in the city has caused this summer, there’s another animal potentially causing bigger problems: deer.
The white-tailed deer population has been on the rise in Michigan for several years, and the deer began making regular appearances at Tenhave Woods seven years ago. Located on 19 acres of Quickstad Park, near Lexington and Marais, immediately east of Royal Oak High School, the park and the surrounding neighborhood have adjusted to the occasional deer during the summer.
But this is the first year that about a dozen deer have called the small nature preserve home at the same time. The effect has been damaging to both the natural habitat of Tenhave Woods and nearby residents’ personal gardens.
“The deer have not been an issue until this year,” said Bob Muller, Royal Oak Nature Society naturalist. “The deer are in every square inch of Royal Oak and probably all the way down to the river in Detroit. Every year for the last seven years, when the leaves fall, the deer leave the park.”
This year, due to the increase in deer hopping over the 6-foot fences to hide in the park during the day, the landscape of more than 300 plant species has been looking a little more sparse, especially with the woods’ most unique plant members.
White trillium and red trillium plants have been disappearing at record paces. Muller said there were 8,500 trillium stems in the park, each featuring a 2-inch wide flower. In the spring, 1,100 stems had been eaten upon first check.
“Within six weeks, all 8,500 were eaten,” Muller said. “It takes two to three years of this kind of browsing and they’re gone forever. It’s the kind of problems you have to move fast or you’ve lost it.”
What makes the trillium so special is that it is considered a “protected” plant species, one step away from being designated as endangered.
“The plants in question are not only rare, they’re (almost) endangered, to the point that they’re protected species in some cases that they’re eating and will soon destroy,” City Manager Don Johnson said.
Muller said Tenhave Woods has been a nature haven since early settlers came to Royal Oak more than a century ago.
“It’s a 19-acre parcel of land that has unique flora and foliage, plants that are unique to this area in southeast Michigan,” City Commissioner Mike Fournier said upon bringing up the issue at the Sept. 10 City Commission meeting. “Recently, there’s been an influx in deer and they’ve been decimating the plants there and it’s to the point where, if it continues, it’ll be a permanent loss there of something that’s been there for a long time.”
Muller added that, if the plant species die off or foliage is lost, some animals would die off or relocate, which would result in other predatory species doing the same. This could disrupt the habitat and influence the local population of groundhogs, rabbits, coyotes and owls.
“All of those animal populations would drop dynamically,” Muller said. “Even coyotes would not kill a deer and eat it (because they’re not big enough to take them down). Their only predators are cars.”
The nature society, in conjunction with a local Eagle Scout project, will be replacing the 6 foot tall fence lines along two sides of the woods Oct. 27 to match the 8 foot tall fences on the other two sides of the park so the deer cannot get into the park. They will also be filling in holes under the fences so the only way in or out of Tenhave Woods is the four narrow turnstiles or two 12-foot gates that are chained shut.
“Once the leaves fall off the trees, the deer leave because there’s no cover,” Johnson said. “They’ll do a walk through, where they basically get a bunch of people together and walk through shoulder to shoulder to make sure there are no deer in the park when they will be closing this in. Because the last thing they want to do is to fence deer into the park. They won’t really be driving the deer out as part of that process, because they’ll already be gone.”
Muller said having four deer per square kilometer is a problem and six can equal plant extinction. He said the dozen or so deer mean Tenhave Woods has 140 deer per square kilometer without any wolves or mountain lions to keep the population balanced naturally. One square kilometer is equal to about 247.1 acres and 19 acres is equal to about 0.077 square kilometers.
“People say deer are nature. Well, yeah, but when we came along, we screwed nature up,” Muller said of humans. “The only way we controlled them was hunting, and we can’t do that in the city. (Replacing the fence) is probably the most important thing the nature society has done.”
Muller said deer can also be found sleeping behind bushes in residents’ yards and a 10-point buck was photographed near Lincoln and Campbell within the past year or two. He said the forest behind Oakview Cemetery, south of 12 Mile Road, houses the second largest deer population in Royal Oak.