Managing the deer population is essential to maintaining or improving forest health. As deer populations have increased at our natural areas and beyond, so have their impact on forest health. Many of our natural areas exhibit reduced forest structure, decreased native plant populations such as trilliums, orchids and various rare plants, increased invasive species growth, and higher rates of Lyme disease, as compared to documented conditions of these sites twenty or thirty years ago.
In addition, we know that the high density of deer results in a greater number of deer/vehicle collisions every year. Deer management is a customary tool for good stewardship of our natural areas, both in protecting the habitat of other species which call our preserves home and also protecting hikers to our lands by potentially reducing the number of ticks found on the property.
By working with the hunting community, we look to maintain a deer population that is in balance with the surrounding habitat where the birds, wildflowers, trees and other wildlife have an equal ability to survive and thrive in forested environments. These forests also filter our air and provide us with clean water and incredible recreational opportunities.
Historically, Cornell Botanic Gardens only allowed hunting on natural areas under two scenarios:
- The land was long open to hunting and remained so due to local community desires
- Specific ecological management goals were tied to the protection of a specific species.
In 2008, we began to expand deer management and hunting programs in particular to include broader ecological management goals tied to increasing forest regeneration. As we better understand the full ecosystem impacts of high deer populations, we see the need to bring the deer’s natural predator back into our preserves and the most effective predator has always been humans.
Over the intervening years, Cornell Botanic Gardens has taken a more proactive approach to deer management. Accomplishments during this period include:
- Conducting vegetation impact assessments across multiple campus and off-campus natural areas.
- Partnering with Cornell’s Integrated Deer Research and Management Program
- Partnering with DEC in developing and piloting New York’s first Deer Management Focus Area
- Hosted a deer management summit with local public and municipal conservation partners
- Recognized as a leader on forest health/deer management issues within the conservation community
Through our work, we have observed modest improvements to overall forest condition, but we know that reversing the legacy effect of too many deer is going to take a number of years. Possibly more important than changes at any one preserve is the fact that Cornell Botanic Gardens is now engaged with the hunting community on setting future deer management objectives and protecting the broader forested landscape.
Also during this time, there has been a growing awareness of deer impacts within the general public. Through efforts of many people, but especially Tom Rawinski (U.S. Forest Service), Jim Sterba (author of Nature Wars and multiple OpEds) and Al Cambronne (author of Deerland), this issue is being brought to the forefront to encourage broader discussion. Recent research from Cornell, the Smithsonian and a host of other academic institutions is highlighting the impact of high deer populations and their impacts on forest health. Some forest ecologists have indicated that no more science is needed, only action.
Over a half-century ago, the great Aldo Leopold warned about the future impacts of deer on our forested systems, but few heeded his warnings. Today, we are seeing the impacts he predicted and worse. There is a call-to-action for all land managers to better steward our lands so we can proudly pass these lands along to the next generation. A key aspect of this stewardship is active deer management.
As we continually re-evaluate where hunting is allowed or not allowed on our natural area lands, the time has come to shift our paradigm to one where our natural areas are generally open to hunting unless there are specific reasons (safety concerns or otherwise) not to allow hunting. The earlier paradigm was to let nature run its course, with predators being responsible for controlling the deer population. During this process, we failed to understand that hunting restrictions eliminate the primary predator of deer – humans. True, unregulated hunting two centuries ago nearly drove white-tailed deer to extinction, and their recovery is an amazing success story achieved through various conservation initiatives including reintroduction. So successful in fact, we now need to reintroduce the human predator back into our landscapes.
While there are ancillary benefits of opening our preserves to hunting, such as building better bridges to the hunting community, offering additional recreational opportunities, opening our preserves to more uses, etc., the main purpose is simply being better stewards to our lands and fulfilling an obligation to protect a wide breadth of species including trilliums, spring wildflowers, oak trees, wood thrushes, red back salamanders and a host of other species which we know are impacted by high deer browse. Deer overpopulation has the potential to limit forest regeneration to such an extent that the most basic ecosystem functions of a forest habitat may be threatened. Even where forests appear to be healthy at present, those forests will likely be negatively impacted by deer in the future unless those deer are actively managed. Being proactive in addressing this threat is an essential part of our stewardship program.
As Cornell Botanic Gardens becomes more pro-active with deer management issues, we also look for understanding and open dialogue with the hunting community. We know some segments of this community want to see more deer or at least do not want to see any decline in the current population. We also know some hunters who are the best birders, fantastic foresters, or otherwise knowledgeable naturalists. These people have known for a long time what we are only now starting to act upon. As we look for ways to increase hunter access on our lands and encourage access on other conservation lands, we look forward to working with hunters who appreciate the entire ecosystem. Hunting should be a time when people can get out into the woods to fully appreciate all the woods have to offer.
Based on our hunter program-to-date, we have learned how to safely implement a hunting program which is slowly turning the tide against years of abuse from over-intensive deer browse. Re-using Aldo Leopold’s quote stated above: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The time has come for us to step forward and do the right thing and manage our preserves for the full suite of wildlife, wildflowers and ecosystem services – many of which are degraded due to over-abundant deer populations.