Above, two deer at night in Binghamton University's Nature Preserve Photo Credit: Woodson Valentino Photography
Back in February, I sat down with Dylan Horvath (M.S.-Biological Science), the steward for Binghamton University’s Nature Preserve since 2006, to chat with him a bit about conservation, biodiversity, and the deer bow hunting program that has taken place this and last year in the preserve. These kinds of programs are popping up all over, especially in central New York, where the deer population is growing out of control. Recently, there was a cull in the city of Syracuse using snipers at night, and Cornell University manages a program that allows hunters to hunt deer on about 50 properties the school owns in the Ithaca area.
Currently, there are over 1,000,000 deer in New York. Nationwide, deer-related car accidents kill about 200 people each year, more than any other mammal, and there are an estimated 70,000 deer collisions each year just in New York. Damages to agriculture by deer grazing is also a major issue. Nationally, it’s estimated that deer do about $4 billion in damage each year. Deer are also the carriers of ticks and tick-borne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 Americans contract Lyme disease each year, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. Although deer aren’t the only reason for this, warmer winters also being to blame, deer overpopulation throughout these regions is a major factor.
The effects of this overpopulation is being felt in the Nature Preserve at Binghamton University as well. According to Horvath, data gathered via infrared cameras puts the population of whitetails in the 1 sq. mile preserve at about 263 deer, with even more deer living elsewhere around campus. Biologists say a healthy population would be less than 10 per square mile. This data lead to a proposal for a deer cull several years ago, which was stopped short. Eventually, a bow hunting pilot program was proposed, which ran this and last year in December after the campus closed for the semester. Not many deer were taken, and Horvath hopes to be able to expand the program, allowing more hunters to get involved to hopefully remove more deer from the landscape.
But can’t the deer population be left alone and just let nature run its course? The short answer is, no. Folks against these kinds of programs often cite New York’s growing coyote populations as being able to keep deer populations in check, but there’s only about 40,000 coyotes in the state, and they mostly scavenge for food, eating a lot of roadkill or already dead animals; this seems like a lot of animals, but it really isn’t. For example, (not that this is not how animal populations work) New York is about 54,000 sq. miles, when averaged, that puts about 19 deer per square mile, compared to just 1 coyote. Besides, if the coyote population could actually control the deer population, we wouldn’t have this problem to begin with. On average, Horvath sees several coyotes, via sign or trail camera pictures, that visit the preserve from time to time, and do occasionally take down a deer, but he believes they’ve made no real impact; deer numbers continue to climb each year.
But isn’t killing animals incongruent with the mission of a preserve? Horvath and most biologists say no and that the answer is in conserving biodiversity. The preserve exists not just for the deer, but for the rest of the species as well, including various flora and fauna: plants, flowers, birds, turkeys, trees, and other mammals. Between deer and various invasive species, including the emerald ash borer, flora diversity is decreasing rapidly in the preserve.
I asked Horvath what his ideal version of the Nature Preserve would look like, and how decreasing the deer population would help. According to him, “We shouldn’t be able to look through the woods from the Connector Road and see campus. The woods are so clear. We should a lot more young trees, more wildflowers, and actual ground cover – layers in the forest. We should have more layers and more plants on the ground level. We’d see more ground nesting birds come back, turkeys. As threatened as our woods are, we still have some good biodiversity, but it’s just not rich anymore.”
Wildlife management in much of the 20th century was aimed toward nature recovery. Settlers had wiped out or nearly wiped out all sorts of animals, include deer, elk, turkeys, and famously, the buffalo. Horvath told me that only 50 years ago, deer were spotted in Vestal and it was so rare that it made the front page of the paper. Now, many of these species have been recovered. Some, like the whitetail, maybe even too successfully. If the deer population continues to grow exponentially, as it has, more deer will be mangled by cars, destroy more farmland, and continue to spread into more urban areas. As food sources become scarcer, deer will eventually starve or freeze to death, which can take months.
Most hunters, myself included, eat venison and other wild game as their main protein source, reducing our reliance on factory farming and subsequently reducing our environmental impacts. Currently, the Venison Coalition of New York donates 39 tons of venison per year, or about 4 million meals, to families in need. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, hunting deer on the preserve is essential to its future, essential to biodiversity, and would help feed some families in the process. Sounds like a win, win, win to me.
Interested in reading more about Binghamton University's deer management plant? A more detailed outline of the proposed plan can be found here.