April 14, 2006

Ithaca Combats Increase in Deer

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“[The deer] were just standing there at 3:30 a.m. in the middle of the Arts Quad,” said Julia Radice ’09.

“I saw a few [deer] while I was on a bike ride. They stared at me, and I stared back. I couldn’t tell if they were someone’s pets or wild animals. It was creepy,” said Gabby Cuesta ’09.

Besides frightening Cornell students, an explosion in the population of Whitetail Deer, a species native to the northeastern United States, has caused environmental and agricultural problems around Cornell, Ithaca and the greater Tompkins County area.

“There are three main problems related to the impact that deer have on plants,” said Don Rakow, director of Cornell’s plantations.

First, the deer eat the buds and branches on shrubs and trees, causing damage that ranges from mere disfiguration to the plant’s death. The deer also eat herbaceous plants from the ground – annuals, perennials and bulbs – an act that causes the plants not to show during the growing season. Finally, adult males, to permit their antlers to grow, compulsively scratch their heads on trees and branches during rutting season, which causes the trees’ bark to fall off. The deer have caused at least $100,000 worth of damage to Cornell, said Rankow.

Additionally, deer affect approximately 1.5 million car accidents nationwide each year, and according to the Cornell Chronicle, cause $1.1 billion in vehicle damage and up to 200 fatalities. They also hurt farmers by eating crops and actively propagating the spread of Lyme disease.

Reflecting on his last 13 years working for the plantations, Rankow said, “the deer problem has become much worse recently.”

This damaging effect on the environment is a reflection of Whitetails’ increased population, which is expected to grow at a 14.6 percent annual rate.

“Because of the overpopulation in the area, the behavior of the deer has changed. They used to be shy animals and now have now become more brazen,” Rankow said. “Accordingly, they have no problem approaching any green area – parks, yards, gardens – and feeding there. They will eat at their own will and are difficult to scare off.”

It is important to solve the problem of deer overpopulation quickly and effectively, but finding the appropriate means to do this is complicated and cumbersome. As of now, Cornell has not come up with an effective solution. “We are still exploring the dimensions of the problem. Once we fully understand the scope and nature of the damage, we will figure out an effective long-term remedy,” said Rankow.

While it is important to create a solution that is environmentally sound, Rankow said, “Currently, the deer are posing a problem to the environment itself that is highly damaging. We are trying to figure out how to restore a better balance between the deer and other organisms.”

Other groups around Ithaca, such as the Forest Home Improvement Association, are also trying to find solutions for the deer management problem. Darcy Binns, chair of the association’s deer management committee, said the group is planning on working with Cornell and surrounding communities to combat the problem.

“None of us can address the problem of deer overpopulation alone. Community involvement is always a key,” Binns said.

Although the committee is working hard, it will not accept just any solution. The committee rejected a 10-foot-tall arboretum deer fence that the Cornell Plantations proposed to place around the 150-acre Newman Arboretum.

“We are very grateful to have the plantations as our neighbor,” said Jon Miller, president of the Forest Home Improvement Association. “We are working to engage in a University-community dialogue to create another solution.” The association rejected this fence because of two main reasons that Miller pointed out.

Firstly, the fence would push deer more directly onto the private properties of community landowners. Secondly, the presence of the fence would change the community’s interaction with the beautiful and shared arboretum property.

So what is an effective deer-removal strategy? Prof. Paul Curtis, natural resources, said that hunting, at this point, is the most environmentally sound technique in alleviating the deer problem.

“There are roughly 250,000 to 300,000 out and propagating during the fall hunting season,” he said. As the hunting would be done as a recreational sport by private parties, this solution, Curtis notes, would be most effective in rural areas where there are fewer hunting restrictions and more open land.

Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer