The Cayuga Heights deer dilemma

Published May 1, 2001

High above Cayuga’s waters, in the Finger Lake country of New York, lies the attractive little village of Cayuga Heights. Over the years, a semi-tame population of highly visible white-tailed deer has evolved there. At first these creatures were delightful, providing the village an opportunity to view nature up close.

But as the negative aspects of the deer herd became more apparent, they lost their charm and welcome. A committee was formed by citizens in 1998 to look at ways to address the burgeoning deer problem. A committee news release noted “deer are magnificent animals, graceful, elusive and swift; yet in large numbers they can quickly strip a woodlands or garden of cover and food precious to other dwellers.” Added to this was the steady rise of deer-auto collisions.

Who is responsible?

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (ENCON) is legally responsible for the management of wildlife, with the Environmental Conservation Law directing ENCON to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can thrive in harmony, to develop and carry out programs that will maintain desirable species in ecological balance, and to maintain deer populations in balance with natural food supplies.

Why, then, did the lay residents of Cayuga Heights find it necessary to bring the deer problem to a head? And why were those residents subsequently told by ENCON that they would be responsible for choosing which management option to employ?

At the request of the committee, the Cornell University Department of Natural Resources conducted a survey of households. Eighty percent of those who responded wanted to see a decrease in deer numbers.

Cornell followed up with an elaborate study, with ENCON’s blessings, to estimate deer numbers and movement patterns. The study was deemed necessary to enable the community to choose its management options. Again, why is the community to choose? ENCON’s responsibility is clear by law.

Plans called for establishing bait sites, one for each 100 acres, to lure deer into net traps. Before they were handled, the deer would be tranquilized to minimize stress. Each captured deer would then be fitted with a numerically marked ear tag–which, to this observer anyway, gives the victim the appearance of a freak in a sideshow. A number of deer would also be decorated with radio transmitter collars. A new infrared camera technique would be employed to determine deer numbers.

One is led to wonder if such drastic measures were necessary. Any artificial feeding can significantly affect deer movement, and any handling by humans can be very stressful and influence behavior. Much of the information the community and university researchers sought could have been quickly and inexpensively obtained by mapping the elaborate deer trail network that is so obvious from the ruts in the ground.

Nevertheless, the feed-capture-and-tag operations began in January 2000.

But something’s missing

Apparently ignored in the community’s deliberations and actions is something that has been known by many wildlife biologists for years. The source of Cayuga’s problem lies to the north, in the prime deer range of the Village of Lansing.

For years, this jurisdiction has been closed to hunting. Consequently, deer populations have not been subjected to the control needed to effect sound management. With the absence of firearm hunting pressure, white-tails have lost much of their fear of humans.

As might be expected, the overflow deer found another safe haven in the suburbs of Ithaca that border Lansing’s south boundary. Truly wild populations would not have behaved this way. Until corrective measures are taken in Lansing, or until all of the village is intensively developed, Cayuga Heights’ problem will be chronic.

From the beginning, ENCON has been negligent in not challenging Lansing’s hunting ban. It is legally mandated that the state be open to hunting, and efforts to ban this activity by municipalities constitute an attempt to supersede state law. Provisions of the state law do allow areas to ban firearm discharge if there is a clear safety concern, but localities must bear the burden of proof. Lansing cannot make such a case, any more than could hundreds of villages and towns throughout the state.

Hunting is an extremely safe form of recreation. When accidents do occur, they most often involve a hunter shooting himself or another hunter. The safety of the typical Lansing resident is not affected at all by the village’s hunting ban.

The very serious problems existing in Cayuga Heights do not exist on the east, south, or west edges of the City of Ithaca. All of the prime deer range of the towns of Dryden, Ithaca, Danby, and Enfield is open to firearm hunting, and impressive harvests are realized.

Unintended consequences rear their white tails

Cayuga Heights is not the only community in the U.S. to face deer management problems. Whether the community in question be Lansing, Amherst, some Albany suburbs, or Westchester County in New York; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Cook County, Illinois; or elsewhere, the common denominator is a ban on firearm hunting in the quality deer habitats adjacent to much higher-density human developments.

People’s front lawns, gardens, barbecues, and driveways are not natural deer habitat. They are invaded only when effective management measures are not in place.

It is unfortunate that at a time of dramatic increases in deer populations throughout the white-tail’s range, there has been a corresponding increase in discussions on the place of hunting in modern society. The efforts of anti-hunting groups to prevent the state from employing the only management tool that is effective over extensive areas must be thwarted.

A paper I prepared for ENCON in 1991, “Some Thoughts On Human Population Densities, Assumed Huntability And Realized Deer Harvests,” shed much light on this subject and refuted the notion that, as human populations increase, more land automatically becomes non-huntable. Employing 1990 census figures, I compared towns with human populations ranging from 150 to 999 per square mile to corresponding calculated legal deer harvest numbers. No trend could be detected showing a decrease in harvest with an increase in human populations. Towns with what are considered high human densities are decidedly huntable.

The exceptions to this finding are very high-density developments like Cayuga Heights–situations that really do not involve wild deer, but rather ones that belong in zoos. Fortunately, cases such as these are presently few and far between. Deer populations generally are non-existent in communities long before the point of non-huntability is reached.

Thanks to hunters

The people of the State of New York should be thankful that hundreds of thousands of deer hunters go afield each year to play their key role in effectively managing this valuable resource. They not only do this free of charge, but in fact pay a fee for the opportunity. The same thanks should be given to hunters of any section of North America where white-tailed deer occur.

Nathaniel R. Dickinson retired after a 35 year wildlife career with the States of Maine, Vermont and New York. He is the author of Common Sense Wildlife Management.