“We have been discussing it since we bought the property,” Ottawa County Parks Director John Scholtz said.
The Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission bought the property in 2005. They recently voted to allow a managed hunt to help control the deer population on Nov. 17-18 during firearms season and Dec. 8-9 during muzzleloader season.
North Ottawa Dunes is a 500-acre dune property located adjacent to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park. The hunts are planned to support the state’s efforts to reduce habitat degradation caused by the deer overpopulation.
“There’s places along the lakeshore and in Grand Haven where our plants are being impacted negatively by the deer herd,” Scholtz said. “What we’re striving for is a balance.”
The hunts coincide with hunts that will take place at Hoffmaster State Park.
Deer population too high
According to parks officials, parks staff and researchers from Grand Valley State University installed a deer exclosure to monitor the effects of the high deer densities at the park in 2007.
Scholtz said an analysis of the exclosures showed there are more plants inside the area that deer cannot access when compared to the surrounding landscape.
Melanie Manion, Natural Resources Management Supervisor at Ottawa County Parks, said that deer are an important part of the natural features within the parks, but said their numbers have outgrown resources.
“The current number of deer is too high to sustain a healthy ecosystem,” she said. “Once kept in check by large predators like wolves and cougars, these large herbivores, when numbers get too high, are able to decimate native plants and the animals dependent on the plants.”
Manion also noted that deer in excessive numbers also are known to spread invasive species, which the county parks system works to control.
Hunt under fire
The planned hunt has come under fire from some community leaders and groups.
“I am concerned about the hunt,” Ferrysburg City Councilwoman Regina Sjoberg said. “I am not anti-hunting, but do feel that the proposed hunt in North Ottawa Dunes is dangerous to surrounding residents. It has been pushed forward by DNR and conservation officials, and is not based on scientific facts.”
Sjoberg was Ferrysburg's representative to a collaborative municipal government meeting regarding the deer issue in March. DNR and park personnel also attended.
“I was under the impression that there would be further discussions, but that never happened,” she said.
Sjoberg was also a representative on Ferrysburg's Deer Advisory Board, which conducted research on deer, invasive species and other environmental matters.
“The fact is, even experts do not agree on deer as an invasive species. I believe county conservation staff has made some very vague statements about deer and their impact on residents,” Sjoberg said. “We need to do a true count of numbers and further research before we jump the gun.”
The local Tri-Cities Safety Coalition also spoke out against the proposed hunt.
In a statement, the group noted, among other things, that the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission's policy statement for deer management in the county parks system was “misguided, biased and deeply flawed.”
The group said that they “argue that without an independent ecosystem impact study and a deer population survey in North Ottawa Dunes to substantiate the need for a hunt using solid data, and without baseline data to provide a starting point, how can the county even know that a hunt is necessary or what it will achieve? In addition, this proposed hunt will pose a serious safety threat to families, children and companion animals that live in the area, and recreational users of North Ottawa Dunes.”
Surveys, safety and support
Manion said there was a lot of time that went into determining what safety measures to take.
A 2010 survey of county residents found that 66 percent of respondents agreed with the need to reduce deer numbers to protect vegetation in high quality natural areas.
Officials also studied the efforts of park managers around the Midwest who recognized the necessity of managing deer populations to protect native ecosystems.
Manion noted that for safety, they will keep hunter levels as low as possible, and they’ll hold a mandatory pre-hunt meeting with hunters to review safety issues and mark a 450-foot buffer zone from inhabited structures.
“Safety is of our utmost concern,” she said.
County Parks will also provide on-site staff support before and during the hunt, and all trails will be closed during the hunt days, she said.
Even with the opposition, there are deer hunters supportive of the plan.
Local hunter Ken Melvin said he didn’t think the planned hunt was a bad idea.
“I don’t see where it would do any harm,” Melvin said. “It is harder and harder to find a place to go.”
He said that these days people requiring a place to hunt are forced to either go on hunts such as the one being planned for this fall, or go on a longer trip.
To obtain a hunting permit for North Ottawa Dunes:
Contact the Ottawa County Parks Office at 616-738-4810 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. A lottery system will be used to select successful hunters if more applications are received than spaces available.
Vote in the Tribune online poll: What do you think of the North Ottawa Dunes deer hunt? (grandhaventribune.com)