September 10, 2009

University Helps Limits Local Deer Population

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At dusk, Prof. Paul Curtis and Prof. Jay Boulanger quietly disappear into Cornell’s forests. They locate the female deer they have been searching for through a radio transmission device and shoot it with a tranquilizer dart. Within minutes, the deer is sedated, blindfolded and transported to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, where intern surgeons perform a quick, permanent sterilization procedure. An hour later, the doe, injected with painkillers, is released back into the wild, and Curtis and Boulanger call it a night.
The two natural resources professors are members of Cornell’s strategic deer management program, which experiments with surgical sterilization in combination with controlled hunting as an alternative way to mitigate deer-related problems at Cornell and its neighborhoods.
During the 2008-2009 season, 27 does were captured and sterilized, and 26 of them were fitted with collars that emitted individualized radio waves to allow researchers to track the deer’s behavior.
Deer population control is a difficult issue in central New York, where traditionally hunting is the primary method for deer control, according to Curtis. However, according to New York state law, hunting is not allowed anywhere within 500 feet of a building due to safety considerations. As suburbs replace the central New York wilderness, legal hunting grounds have become increasingly scarce. Therefore, hunting is no longer capable of controlling the deer population. The suburban sprawl, in combination with milder winters in comparison to the Adirondacks, enable more fawns in central New York to survive to adulthood, according to Boulanger.
This deer research and management effort was initiated four years ago when plant damage caused by the white tail deer at the Cornell Plantations spun out of control. Hunting, the most traditional method of deer control, is difficult due to Cornell’s building and student population density. The University initially proposed constructing a fence around the plantation, but the plan was opposed by residents of the Cornell neighborhood. As a result, the sterilization program was created after a deer management committee caucused for two years, according to Prof. Jay Boulanger, natural resources.
The current deer management program is funded by the College of Veterinary Medicine, Day Hall, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Wild Life [img_assist|nid=37950|title=Oh deer!|desc=A foe is sterilized last night at the Vet School as part of a University initiative to manage local deer populations.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=448]Damage Management Corporation of 13 Northeastern states. The program is planned for five years, and may be extended depending on its effectiveness. The total cost of surgery is approximately $550 per deer, and labor costs for capture, transportation, and marking is an additional $525 per deer. According to Curtis, funding cuts for the program due to Reimagining Cornell are not anticipated at this point.
Compared to other problematic wild animals at Cornell such as beavers, black bears and racoons, deer cause the “greatest damage in terms of value,” Curtis said.
Health and safety concerns, such as diseases and vehicle accidents, are also a major motivation for deer population control, he added.
“We have some data, but not a full [set],” Boulanger said. “The Cornell University Police Department reports under 10 accidents a year, but more than half of deer accidents are not reported because people are afraid that their insurance rates will go up.”
Although deer are generally gentle animals, does with fawns may become protective and aggressive against humans when they feel threatened, Boulanger said.
Lyme disease, a bacterial infection carried by ticks, is a common concern for areas with large deer populations. However, since the prevalence of ticks in Ithaca is relatively low compared to other New York State regions such as Hudson Valley and Long Island, Curtis said diseases are not a concern at the moment even though it could be in the future.
The deer management program so far has been well received by the residents of the Cornell neighborhoods, according to Boulanger. Although one of the biggest challenges of the program is securing access to private land in order to capture deer, Curtis said that most community members have been very cooperative.
“We are receiving very positive reactions,” Curtis said. “Although we only work within Cornell property, we are benefiting the entire neighborhood.”
Brittany Mosher ’09, who graduated in May, is one of the two interns working for the program. 
“Hopefully, we will see results in the next few years that will be helpful to other communities who are trying to cope with an overabundance of deer,” Mosher said. 
Local hunters also applaud the new “Earn a Buck” hunting management program, which allows licensed hunters to harvest female deer and lower the reproductive potential of the herd, and ultimately the herd size and its associated impact, according to Curtis.
In addition to managing the deer population, the deer management team is also the central contact point on campus for all deer related accidents. Team members have rescued deer entangled in hammocks, trapped in Warren Hall window wells and caught in metal fences. Sometimes the rescue effort can be quite an “adventure,” Boulanger said.
“Once a buck crashed through a window on an engineering building and destroyed a laser lab,” Boulanger said. “Since [the deer] was too close [for us to use the] dart, we had to wrestle the deer to get it out, men on deer.”
Although bucks only weigh up to 150 pounds and does only weigh up to 130 pounds, deer legs are very strong and the hoofs can be extremely powerful. A team member once suffered several broken ribs, Curtis said.
“I enjoy my job very much,” Curtis said. “Every day is different, you never know what is going to happen next.”