It may be hard for modern suburbanites to believe that white-tailed deer were once so rare, their sightings merited newspaper headlines. These days, with developments encroaching into what were once woodlands, humans and deer come into constant conflict—leading to car accidents, enraged gardeners, and bitter disputes over how to deal with the ubiquitous herbivores.
Cornell's deer management program tackles a cloven-hooved conundrum
By Sharon Tregaskis
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.
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.
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."
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."