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The Buck Stops Here

Cornell’s deer management program tackles a cloven-hooved conundrum


Josh Eckenrode ’01 was at the register of his downtown Ithaca café when he heard the crash of a plate glass window shattering. It was a Sunday in early June and, on the sidewalk outside the historic Dewitt Mall, throngs of pedestrians had gathered for the annual Ithaca Festival.

As Eckenrode looked up, a ninety-pound yearling buck—bleeding, confused, and a little off balance as it slipped across the linoleum floor—careened from the toy store into the windows of the oriental rug and book shops, then straight for some thirty Café DeWitt diners enjoying a brunch of huevos rancheros, lemon soufflé pancakes, and some of the strongest coffee in town. “It was pandemonium,” says the restaurateur. “People were screaming; stuff was knocked off tables.”

In the café, the deer clattered along the bench seats at the back of the dining area, put a hoof through a half-wall of aquariums, and slid into the dish room. The four people inside beat a hasty retreat, locking the door behind them and trapping the deer inside. The local police summoned certified wildlife biologist Jay Boulanger, PhD ’07, program coordinator for Cornell’s Integrated Deer Research and Management Program.

Eight point buck


Boulanger and a tech arrived within the hour, bearing the office dart gun. A single shot of anesthesia knocked out the creature before the pair blindfolded it, bound its legs, and loaded it on a stretcher. “We discreetly carried it out, covered with a blanket, so people at the Ithaca Festival wouldn’t see the body we were loading in the pickup truck,” says Boulanger. “It was quite a circus.”

On campus, a vet cleaned and stitched the deer’s lacerations and tagged its ear with a unique ID. Afterward, Boulanger drove the still-snoozing animal to an undisclosed location on Cornell land, “as close as it could be to where it was found.” Unbound and its blindfold removed, the deer received a second shot reversing the first. “It got its head up, stood up, and walked away,” he says, noting that other than the stitches and some bruising, its only mark of the day’s adventure was a broken antler. “They’re very resilient, tough.”

Perhaps too tough, if the rising tide of conflict with humans is any indication. Every spring, does preparing to fawn clean house, chasing their yearling sons from their natal territory. And every spring, as those young bucks search for a territory of their own, reports escalate of deer in places where they don’t belong. “They get into all sorts of trouble as they try to find new habitat and home range,” says Boulanger. The conflicts boil down to basic arithmetic: with minimal predation and expansive forage thanks to farm fields and lush landscaping throughout the Northeast, deer populations have risen exponentially. Meanwhile, humans aren’t going away; in fact, we’re spreading out, creating ever-richer habitat in the form of subdivisions, office parks, and golf courses.

In the case of white-tailed deer—the country’s most common large mammal and the official animal of ten states—the overlap all but guarantees an array of conflicts with humans, in the form of motor vehicle accidents, rising costs associated with plant damage, and an explosive increase in Lyme disease and other bacterial infections transmitted by the ticks that mate and feed on deer, then make the leap to humans. “There’s been a definite trend in recovery of species that are very adapted to the landscapes humans create,” says associate professor of natural resources Paul Curtis, founding director of the deer program and coordinator of the online Center for Wildlife Damage Management Program. “It’s not only white-tailed deer. Canada geese, coyotes, and several bird species that do well in fragmented landscapes with a lot of subsidized food resources are also making a rebound.”

Back when Cornell was founded, white-tailed deer were rare. Centuries of unregulated hunting, combined with agricultural expansion, had nearly eradicated a pre-Columbian population estimated at some 30 million; just 300,000 of the fleet-footed ruminants remained nationwide. Sightings were so infrequent throughout the first half of the twentieth century—including in 1942, when Disney produced the animated film Bambi—that newspapers published the rare reports of farmers who’d seen one in their fields.


Bucolic buffet: A “browse line” shows deer damagePROVIDED BY TODD BITTNER

Today, populations of Odocoileus virginianus are on par with Homo sapiens in the U.S.—and rarely are the species’ encounters as idyllic as Bambi fans might hope.  Every day, deer are implicated in 4,000 motor vehicle accidents. In New York State, insurance companies pay $200 million annually for deer-related motor vehicle claims, and nationwide the toll also includes 250 human fatalities and 30,000 hospitalizations each year.  Lyme disease is now the second most commonly reported infectious disease in New England; in Tompkins County, incidence has risen by 1,086 percent over the last five years.

Farmers bemoan losses of more than $100 million in annual crop damage; urban communities catalog expenses closer to $250 million. Naturalists wail, too: in Pennsylvania hardwood forests alone, these herbivores are credited with damages of $367 million annually through their destruction of seedlings. For home gardeners—simultaneously enchanted by a frolicking fawn and infuriated by the voracious appetite of a creature that consumes four to six pounds of plant material daily—the costs can’t be calculated.

Now beginning its sixth year of operation, Cornell’s Integrated Deer Research and Management Program was launched in 2007 to reduce “deer abundance and associated impacts” by 75 percent on central campus and 50 percent in the University’s outlying areas through a combination of sterilization and controlled hunting. Now funded primarily by CALS—the University slashed the program’s funding from $100,000 to $30,000 as part of its recent cost-cutting efforts—Curtis and Boulanger oversee 5,000 acres of University land, making their project the largest in Tompkins County, responsible for many of the same tasks now standard for municipalities throughout the Northeast.

In addition to overseeing the surgical sterilization of dozens of does on central campus—and extracting animals from such unsafe settings as downtown cafés—the program also manages hunting on farther-flung University property. In six years, hunters have taken 500 deer from campus, says Curtis, and the team has yet to document a shift in herd size. “Suburban deer issues are probably the most difficult,” he adds, noting that the animals’ home ranges of 150 to 500 acres or more rarely correspond to the maps drawn by their human neighbors. “The most effective programs look at multiple management options across a wide scale and get municipalities to work together.”


Capture and release: A deer at the Plantations bears ear tags and a radio collar.LISA BANLAKI FRANK

On central campus, the deer sport ear tags and radio collars, testament to the array of investigations pursued by faculty in natural resources and veterinary medicine related to the animals’ biology, ecology, and interactions with humans. (The café deer hasn’t been seen since its release, says Boulanger, but others tagged on central campus have ranged as far as Mara­thon, thirty miles east, and Geneva, fifty miles north.) Recent publications detail the most effective repellents to protect landscaping, analyze the relative efficacy of chemical and surgical sterilization techniques, and investigate methods for treating free-ranging deer with tick repellent to reduce Lyme transmission. Both Curtis and Boulanger also travel throughout the state, presenting their work and facilitating meetings hosted by communities seeking guidance on humane, affordable, and effective tactics to manage their herds. “There’s always the option to do nothing,” says Curtis, “but then the local community has to live with the consequences.”

At Cornell, University Police catalog perhaps forty deer-related incidents each year, primarily in­volving injured animals and those trapped where they don’t belong—inside fenced areas or indoors. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have the volume of car-deer accidents seen in other jurisdictions,” says deputy chief of Co­r­-nell Police David Honan. “One reason for that is the low speed limits; the other is effective management of the herd.”

From an ecological perspective, however, the University has a long way to go before it can celebrate truly effective management, says Bernd Blossey, an associate professor of natural resources who organized the committee of thirty stakeholders from the Plantations, Cornell Police, Risk Management, and the Department of Natural Resources that now oversees the deer program. “The most important stress in Northeastern forests might not be the emerald ash borer or acid rain, but white-tailed deer,” says Blossey. “If a University building is dilapidated, it gets renovated. If the lights go out, the heat or air conditioning don’t work, we fix them. Yet our outdoor classrooms are being ruined. We can’t study or teach ecological interactions, other than disaster zones, given our deer populations.”

For evidence, consider the Plantations’ Mundy Wildflower Garden, a twenty-five-acre native plant refuge on an active floodplain of Fall Creek in the Forest Home neighborhood. Surrounding six of those acres is an eight-foot woven-wire fence. Within it, lush, dense growth extends in every direction as native plants find their niche between sun and shade. In the understory, trillium, red columbine, bergamot, wild geranium, jack in the pulpit, angelica, lobelia, beardtongue, asters, goldenrod, and milkweed bloom beneath a canopy of sycamore, basswood, and sugar maple. In the shrubby mid-story between, immature hardwood saplings thrive alongside redbud, purple flowering raspberry, viburnum, spice bush, and red and yellow dogwood, providing food and habitat for songbirds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals; the blooms sustain hundreds of species of native pollinators and in spring and summer the air hums with their activity.

But just beyond the fence—erected in 2008—it looks like an army of gardeners has been hard at work. “There’s no woody plant between my ankle and chest,” says Todd Bittner, director of the Plantations’ natural areas. “It’s not people on mowers—it’s deer mowers.” Even the trees look as though they’ve been tidily pruned to preserve a clear line of sight several hundred feet through the woods. “That noticeable browse line,” says Bittner, bending to search for even a single sapling or tree branch below four-and-a-half feet, “means deer damage is off the charts.”

While deer nibble more than 600 species of plant materials—from mushrooms and lichen to tree bark and twigs, cacti, nuts, foliage, and an array of agricultural crops—they favor easily digestible new growth. Fawns learn browsing patterns from their mothers much as young brides once inherited prized family recipes, and each herd tends to specialize on a short list of some forty or fifty preferred plant species. Should the deer population boom or their access be limited by fencing, those tastes can be transformed in the course of a single growing season.

In 2012, an extended summer drought turned the Cornell Plantations into an herbivore’s dining destination. “As a practice, we water the plants in the Botanical Garden, so they remain healthy showpieces,” says Bittner. “The Botanical Garden was the only green space in the area; it was like a salad bar for deer.” For animals craving dense nutrients amidst scarcity, the healthiest plants are an obvious place to start. And as specimens are noshed, Plantations employees apply repellants, erect temporary fencing, and, when all else fails, replace what’s been lost—at a total cost of $8,000 in 2007 and more than $27,000 in 2010. “What’s the point of having unique horticultural varieties if they can’t be seen and appreciated by the public?” Bittner muses. “Every time something is ready to flower, it gets eaten.”

Back when the Mundy Wildflower Garden was fenced, Plantations staff proposed a similar perimeter for the Newman Arboretum. Neighbors objected, and the Plantations deferred. Instead, staff now cage individual specimens—some permanently, some seasonally. “Deer have diminished food resources in this whole area, so they’ve switched to less-preferred forage,” says Bittner. “If pressed by high population, even resistant plants get eaten. Eventually, the only things left behind are highly unpalatable or poisonous.” This summer, the Plantations started budgeting for an enclosure to protect nine acres of the botanical gardens. “Deer target areas with nutritious plants,” says Bittner. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s untenable to maintain a living plant museum with this density of deer.”


Fence me in: An eight-foot barrier protects Cornell’s Mundy Wildflower Garden from hungry herbivores. Opposite: A deer goes bipedal in search of a meal.Lisa Banlaki Frank

At the scale of the University’s 3,400 acres of natural areas scattered throughout Tompkins County, says Bittner, fences are neither financially nor logistically feasible. Erecting and maintaining the Mundy Wildflower Garden fence cost $62,000 in its first three years alone. “It requires effort to insure that fences aren’t damaged by trees, to get people in and out, to respond if a deer gets inside.” Even worse, he says, is the prospect of simply absorbing the increasing rate of browse-related damage. “Canopy trees may re-seed,” he says, “but the bulk of plant diversity in northeastern forests is the understory. Once those species are extirpated, there’s not much we can do to put them back. If we lose them, we lose the insects, birds, and other vertebrates that are part of that system. If we lose 90 percent of the foundation, we lose 90 percent of the ecosystem.”

To quantify the pressure imposed by deer in search of a square meal, Blossey has launched a research project using red oak seedlings to measure browse damage. White-tails prefer trillium and other members of the lily family to the oak saplings, so the trees’ survival rate serves as a valuable indicator of just how desperate the animals are for calories. An army of research assistants monitors survival rates of the seedlings, some fenced and others unprotected, on campus and elsewhere throughout Upstate New York. “Hunters may care how many deer there are, but from a conservation perspective, we need to know their effect,” says Blossey, who argues that the one-size-fits-all ratios of deer per square mile bandied about in civic struggles over white-tail management have limited utility for conservation purposes. “Whether it’s five deer per square mile or 100, it’s a useless debate. If there are 1,000 on campus and all they do is breathe air and avoid the cars, it doesn’t matter if they’re there.”

For the villages of Cayuga Heights and Lansing, both adjacent to campus, the question of carrying capacity is far from academic. In Cayuga Heights, where any form of hunting is illegal and lush landscaping provides abundant habitat and forage, Curtis’s studies suggest that the census teeters upwards of 125 deer per square mile. Residents concerned about increasing vehicle collisions and landscape destruction put management on elected officials’ agenda in the late Nineties, spurring an increasingly acrimonious battle. In December 2012, after town leaders won a legal challenge and then failed to garner the requisite permission from landowners to stage a massive culling operation approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, 137 does were baited, trapped, anesthetized, and surgically sterilized, using techniques developed on Cornell’s campus.

The procedure—in which a doe’s ovaries are removed via an abdominal incision—takes about ten minutes, once you know what you’re doing, says veterinarian Kyla Ortved, who learned the procedure as a resident at the Vet college from 2007 to 2010. Now a postdoc, Ortved spent a week last winter working as a contract surgeon for the Village of Cayuga Heights. Surgery costs about $1,200 per animal, says Curtis, and it works—slowly, but surely—on relatively small, relatively fixed populations like those in Cayuga Heights and on the central campus. Despite the appeal of chemical sterilization—think birth control pills for Bambi, a tactic the mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson has announced his town will pursue—Boulanger says currently available options aren’t cost-effective. Curtis conducted a pilot study of the technique in Cayuga Heights in 2005 and more recently with Boulanger (whose dissertation he advised), and published a comprehensive literature review for the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions. “It requires booster shots or repeated treatments,” explains Boulanger. “You capture a doe, give it a shot, then have to do it again a year or two later.” Deer aren’t stupid, he points out, and they don’t like getting caught. “After you capture it once, it’s harder to capture it the next time.”

For larger, less densely residential communities, says Curtis, hunting is a cost-effective alternative to sterilization, as long as citizens get behind the effort and furnish hunters with access to enough land. In Lansing, Blossey oversees a program launched in 2007 that enlists expert archers with landowner permission who take does from Village property during the regular hunting season, using special permits issued by the Department of Conservation. Hunters comply with all state regulations, including setbacks from residences and schools. In six years, there hasn’t been a single accident. “Concern about a hunter misidentifying a target comes from guns—the idea that you might shoot at a sound or something moving,” says Blossey, whose queries to state agencies in search of accidental shooting reports involving archers have come up empty. “There are reports about bullets going through windows, or someone getting shot hanging out laundry—but that’s about bullets. Even goldenrod can deflect an arrow, so you really have to know what you’re shooting at. And surely you know whether it’s a cat or a dog or a toddler and not a deer.”

Despite the removal of 250 deer by hunters—and another 250 or so in motor vehicle accidents—over the last six years, Blossey has yet to document a shift in forest regeneration in Lansing. It’s a different story on the 350 acres that he and his partner own in nearby Tioga County, where he and friends have reduced the herd by forty animals over the last two years, giving away the meat they couldn’t use themselves. At least six large, healthy deer remain—they can often be seen frolicking in the meadow—and Blossey maintains eight-foot fences to protect some twenty acres of native ginseng, orchids, and other native wildflowers. Yet many of the unfenced natives have rebounded. “Trillium that never flowered before are massively flowering,” says Blossey, “and over two years of planting seedling oaks, only one has been eaten.”

Deer on campus

Lisa Banlaki Frank

Two programs permit hunters on University property. For both, applicants authorize Cornell Police to conduct background checks and anyone with a felony conviction is rejected. Most sites allow only archery; firearms are heavily restricted and hunters must report such details as the age and sex of deer taken and observed. Hunters who fail to comply with all regulations are barred from participation in subsequent years.

In Boulanger’s Earn-A-Buck program, covering 4,027 acres of University-owned agricultural fields and woodlots, hunters must remove a quota of antlerless deer before earning the right to take a trophy. Last year, 538 hunters harvested 165 animals. The other program, on the Plantations’ 3,400 acres of natural lands, uses a password-protected online reservation system. “Part of our strategy is to have as many hunters in the field as is safe,” Bitt­ner says. Last year, more than 1,000 hunters applied to hunt in the Plantations; 238 showed up, taking ninety-six deer. This fall, when Bittner received vague trespassing complaints at one site, he used what few details he had to triangulate within his electronic records. “I figured out who it was and kicked them out of the program,” he says. “We don’t want to be bad neighbors, and if our hunters are trespassing, they’re either willfully breaking the law or they don’t know where they are—either way, that’s not safe.”

Local efforts got a boost in 2012–13 when the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation launched its pilot Deer Management Focus Area, a 60,000-acre swath of land in Tompkins County. While hunters still require landowner permission and must abide by all local laws, regulations in the focus area decreased costs, raised harvest limits, and extended the hunting season. “The idea had been in consideration by DEC for several years, and they were looking for an area where they could get good evaluation data,” says Curtis, who consulted on the program’s design and execution along with Bittner, Boulanger, Blossey, and other Cornell experts. “Given that we’re already estimating abundance on campus, and the Village of Cayuga Heights was looking at its options, this seemed like a good area for an evaluation to be done.”

In October, three weeks after the fall archery season begins in Tompkins County, the Plantations will host journalist Jim Sterba—author of Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds—for a public lecture. The next day, Cornell’s Deer Management Committee will host Sterba with elected officials, land managers, public agencies, and scholars for a series of panels and small-group conversations about coordinated deer management in Tompkins County. “We’re not just putting up fences and shooting deer,” says Bittner. “We’re bringing people together to work collectively. It’s part of our land-grant mission to pursue solutions to challenges. To be a successful, world-class university, we have to have a world-class deer management program.”

On the Ithaca farm operated by CAM contributing editor Sharon Tregaskis ’95 and her partner, an eight-foot fence protects four acres of fruit and vegetables from marauding deer.