April 4, 2006

Deer on the doorstep: Cornell is overrun by charming but chomping whitetails

The sight of a white-tailed deer offers a glimpse of a nimble animal free to roam. The animals also bring billions of dollars in hunting-related revenue to rural economies. However, across the United States, the hoofed ruminants are infamous for feeding on gardens and ornamentals, spreading Lyme disease and causing 1.5 million vehicle accidents annually, amounting to more than $1.1 billion in vehicle damage and up to 200 fatalities.

The Cornell community and its surrounding neighborhoods have not escaped this modern tension between nature and man, a consequence of human ubiquity and rising populations of deer, which have few natural predators in suburban areas. Deer are decimating plants and agricultural research plots across campus to the tune of up to an estimated $100,000 a year in plant loss, labor and materials.

Cornell officials admit they are stumped about how to control the free-roaming populations. Although the deer problem plagues much of the suburban Northeast, at Cornell it is particularly acute. Consider that when deer eat plants in the living museum known as Cornell Plantations, the impact is similar to a vandal slashing paintings in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. And when these herbivores nibble away on plants in experimental agricultural plots on campus, the effect equals spoilers trashing a working laboratory.

"Our mission at Cornell Plantations is to hold and preserve diverse horticultural and natural collections for the education and enrichment of the Cornell community and broader public," said Don Rakow, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations. "But the deer are causing constant, chronic damage. We are currently fighting a losing battle, and it prevents us from fulfilling our mission." While officials have tallied deer damage at Plantations at $20,000 per year, Rakow said $100,000 may be a more realistic estimate of damage that includes Plantations, experimental plots and other cultivated areas on campus.

At Plantations, deer chomping on trees and shrubs reduces them so "they are no longer valuable specimens," Rakow said. During rutting season, the bucks spread their scent by rubbing against trunks of trees and shrubs, which has killed many plants. Also, the deer feed on herbaceous plants, annuals, perennials and bulbs, "making it impossible to grow many of these."

Deer damage also compromises essential habitats for birds and other animals in the arboretum. Repellents and fencing around key plants are not viable long-term options.

"Based on expert analysis, Cornell has a deer problem," said Steve Golding, executive vice president for finance and administration. "And we have to find a solution to this problem, because we have the responsibility to protect Plantations and research plots on campus."

At the same time, deer know no boundaries. They also go after the gardens and shrubs of local residents and raise fears of accidents and Lyme disease. The trespassers are not Cornell's deer, but everyone's deer. And how Cornell handles the issues will be relevant to communities everywhere. Cornell, therefore, includes the public that it serves as New York's land-grant university in any discussions of deer management. Any solution for dealing with the animals, Cornell officials stress, will involve close consultation with the general public who use and live near Cornell's land.

One proposed solution involved installing a fence around the 150-acre campus arboretum to keep out two herds of about 20 deer, but some neighbors in the Forest Home community were concerned that a fence would reduce the aesthetics of the area, limit easy access to the Cornell land and push more deer onto their properties.

Other communities have experimented with culling populations, either by bringing in sharpshooters or archers, administering contraceptives via dart guns, and even surgically sterilizing populations. The nearby Cayuga Heights neighborhood has experimented with deer sterilization and birth control, with mixed results.

Currently Cornell has made no decisions, as all options remain on the table.

"The university is going to have to do what it can to protect plant materials that are critical for teaching, research and outreach," said Paul Curtis, associate professor of natural resources at Cornell. "But we are also going to work with the community to find solutions that are socially acceptable and financially possible."

Cornell officials have met with university deer experts to assess the situation. They have also met with local community members, including representatives of the Forest Home Improvement Association, to understand neighborhood concerns. University officials will soon host public meetings to discuss and decide on mutually acceptable options.