More than 7,000 people have signed an online petition that went live March 23 as Cayuga Deer, a local advocacy group, urges Cornell University to stop trapping and killing deer on university property.
Cornell has used clover traps, collapsible netted cages held together by steel pipes, to capture deer since 1997. Cornell began using hunting and surgical sterilization techniques in 2007 to further regulate what it calls a “chronic deer overpopulation on its lands.” Those lands include agricultural research areas, on-campus nature trails and the surrounding woodlands, which are owned by Cornell.
For two years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has granted Cornell nuisance deer–control permits, which allowed it to euthanize 40 deer captured in clover traps in the month of March and also use licensed archers to shoot deer. According to Cornell, by shrinking deer populations it can better protect its staff and students who are conducting field research, as well as members of the community, from tick-borne illnesses and deer strike–vehicle accidents.
The most recent DEC permit expired March 31, and Cornell said it would reevaluate the effectiveness of the management program before deciding to apply for another permit and move forward with additional deer population control efforts.
James LaVeck, a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Cayuga Deer, launched the petition and said Cornell’s conclusion of this round of killings does not make him feel any better.
“What they’re doing is establishing a culture,” LaVeck said. “They’re creating a way of relating to the indigenous wildlife that will bring systematic mass killing of wildlife into our community as an annual event.”
LaVeck said Cornell is using a controversial method that involves killing the deer by using a bolt gun to shoot a metal bolt through their heads after being captured in the clover traps.
“This is a practice that many humane societies and experts around the country consider to be a grotesque, inhumane practice that should never be carried out,” LaVeck said.
In a statement, Cornell acknowledged the use of an instantaneous euthanasia method but didn’t confirm whether or not it was the bolt method LaVeck mentioned. Regardless, Cornell said the unspecified killing method it does use was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The deer management program is intended to protect agricultural research and the health of local ecosystems, which Cornell said are threatened by deer overpopulation.
“All deer management activities on Cornell property are tightly controlled to assure safety,” Cornell said in its statement. “The deer management program was carefully built over the past six years, and it has maintained a spotless safety record.”
In deciding whether or not to grant permits for deer management efforts across the state, the DEC said on its website it considers human health and livelihood, the welfare of plant and animal species and the health of the deer herds themselves. Courtney LaMere, a wildlife biologist with the regional DEC office representing Tompkins County, said the agency granted the permits in response to calls for help from Cornell and the Cayuga Heights community.
“They have made the decision using whatever metrics they find important as a community — one thing would be vehicle collisions and another would be property damage,” LaMere said. “If they find it’s important enough to them as a community and it’s based in science, then we would issue them the permit to go ahead and manage deer.”
According to statistics from the Tompkins County Highway Department, 155 dead deer, struck by vehicles, were removed from county roads in 2012. In contrast, LaVeck cites data from the Cayuga Heights Police Department on his website to show there were fewer than a dozen deer strikes per year in Cayuga Heights, where Cornell’s deer management efforts were focused, between 2004 and 2008. LaVeck said police data showed none of the deer strikes by drivers in recent years resulted in serious human injury.
“What I’m waiting to see is a scientifically credible argument that in our area there is some type of a problem caused by deer that justifies a mass killing program,” LaVeck said. “I have not yet seen that.”
Cornell maintains the reduction of tick-borne illnesses, like Lyme disease, is one of the key motives behind the deer management program. But a June 2012 study by the University of California Santa Cruz found no direct correlation between deer populations and an increase in Lyme disease. Ticks don’t contract Lyme disease from deer, but rather from infected mice, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Research from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources found infected ticks that latched on to deer and subsequently detached from the host were of little risk to humans because the ticks were nearing the end of their life cycles and would not feed again.
The Cayuga Deer organization suggests instead of killing deer, the community should consider hiring a deer ranger who would assist residents on a case-by-case basis. LaVeck said on the Cayuga Deer website such a ranger could help protect gardens by teaching property owners nonlethal techniques, like using deer repellents or building fences to keep deer away.