Answers to Common Questions about the Deer Management Plan for the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve
Q. Why has the college decided to implement a deer population management program?
A. Central to the stated mission of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) is a commitment to “protect and preserve the ecological diversity of the land.” Our research confirms that there is considerable deer overpopulation at the Farm and Ecological Preserve and that without actively managing the population, the future health of the forest and vegetation on that land is threatened. Our continuing studies show that:
- Due to their intensive consumption habits, the deer are preventing the establishment of young trees. As a result very few of these saplings are able to grow above the consumption, or browse, line. Without saplings in the forest there are no trees to replace the older canopy trees. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) recommends managing deer populations based on their negative impacts on forested lands. To address the impacts we’ve documented at the VFEP, Vassar needs to reduce the deer population there.
- The overabundance of deer is having a negative impact on plant diversity at the VFEP. Because there are more deer than the land can provide food for, the deer’s food supply is compromised and they begin to eat plants that they would usually avoid.
- The combined lack of tree regeneration and loss of diversity threaten the long-term health of the overall forest ecosystem.
Q. How many deer are on the VFEP?
A. The VFEP plot is a little less than one square mile. Just before the 2015 spring birthing season we estimated the deer population there to be between 19 and 21 per square mile, sourcing both aerial infrared flyover photography and on-the-ground deer fecal pellet counts. Studies show that plant and animal communities have been greatly damaged at other northeastern sites when there are more than 10 deer per square mile.
This map reflects an infrared flyover photograph taken of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve in early March 2016, showing a population of 26 deer per square mile within the survey area outlined in red. Each red dot on the map indicates a deer. Studies show that plant and animal communities have been greatly damaged at other northeastern sites when there are more than 10 deer per square mile.
Q. Why are there so many?
A. The VFEP is an open space in the midst of a largely suburban area. Its fields and forests, combined with the surrounding suburban yards, draw deer to a bountiful year-round food supply. Once there, the deer no longer have natural predators so their population grows unchecked. And when deer overpopulate a concentrated area such as the VFEP their health is more prone to suffer, from increased diseases and scarcer resources such as food and habitat.
Q. Why did Vassar choose to have sharpshooters cull the deer at the VFEP?
A. Public safety is the college’s highest priority on this matter. After exploring all the available deer management options we saw that sharpshooting carefully conducted by a professional organization is the best and safest approach. Vassar has now had repeated culls conducted by sharpshooters without safety problems. Accuracy makes this method the safest for our neighbors. Highly trained wildlife management professionals cull the deer strictly at locations on the VFEP that are far from residences and businesses. Shooting only occurs when the professionals have a clear line of vision. The work is completed over a short period of days. Also, sharpshooting is often considered the most humane lethal method to cull deer because accuracy makes it rare for an animal to be wounded, rather than killed right away.
Q. Who culls the deer?
A. The college began working with U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services in 2013. A private company conducted the first cull in 2010. Culls are only conducted at night when the VFEP is closed. During that time college security officers are stationed at the VFEP’s entrances and patrol its borders to ensure that people stay off the land.
Q. How long will deer population management be necessary at the VFEP?
A. Deer culls will be conducted on a regular basis. Vassar consistently monitors the health of the forest and the overall Farm and Ecological Preserve, as well as the size of the deer population there. The college will continue to use these findings to assess and adjust its management strategies.
Q. Why are the culls in the winter?
A. The safest time to conduct a deer cull is when the fewest people are typically using the land. The college’s winter break is that time at the VFEP, both for people from Vassar and the general public.
Q. What happens to the deer after they are culled?
A. The venison is processed and donated to food pantries. As a result of Vassar’s culls tens of thousands of meals have already been provided to people in need. The processing is done by Hunters Helping the Hungry, a longtime program run by the Federation of Dutchess County Fish and Game Clubs.
Q. Do other organizations in the region manage their deer populations in a similar way?
A. Carefully controlled sharpshooting has been safely used by such municipalities as Tuxedo Park, NY, Princeton, NJ, and Greenwich, CT, as well as at locations including Letchworth State Park (near Rochester, NY), Teatown Lake Reservation (in Westchester County), and Swarthmore College (outside Philadelphia). Other nearby organizations invite hunters on their lands to control the deer population, including the Mohonk Preserve and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Vassar will not allow hunting on the VFEP because of its residential surroundings, and the high level of activity on the property during the traditional hunting season.
Q. What other deer population management options did Vassar explore?
A. This is what we learned about other options:
- Immunocontraception is not approved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for deer management. It is unproven, difficult, and expensive to implement. In 2014, a study began at Hastings-on-Hudson, NY to examine the effect of immunocontraception on a population of free ranging deer. We will continue to monitor this project for indications that immunocontraception is a feasible management option
- Trapping and transferring deer to a different location is illegal in New York State because it often injures the animals and very few survive the release into a new location. Additionally, moving wildlife can transport diseases to different populations.
- Archery is currently prohibited outside of the traditional fall hunting season by New York State law. For public safety it is best to conduct deer management activities at the VFEP during the winter, when the fewest people are using the land.
- Shotgun hunting during the permitted New York State season would be illegal and dangerous for our neighbors and the users of the Farm and Ecological Preserve. The timing of the shotgun hunting season also presents similar public safety concerns as the timing of the archery season.
Q. What long-term ecological damage to the VFEP is caused by the overpopulation of deer?
A. A variety of damage is occurring:
- The overpopulation of deer is dramatically altering the entire forest structure of the VFEP. Young trees are particularly vulnerable to deer foraging during the winter, when there is little else for the deer to eat. Due to the deer’s intensive winter browse, forest regeneration is hindered and the future of balanced plant communities at the VFEP is placed at great risk.
- Deer eat the most palatable plants they encounter, and these species are often those that are native to the deer’s range. Overbrowsing by high densities of deer has caused a decline in native plant species populations and allowed invasive species to flourish. This vegetation decline also harms birds, reptiles, amphibians, spiders -- and even deer -- because food sources and habitat are eliminated.
Q. How does the deer overpopulation affect the neighborhoods surrounding the VFEP?
A. High densities of deer are correlated to higher incidence of tick borne diseases. Collisions between cars and deer cause property damage and personal injury. Our community also suffers economic losses in forestry, agriculture, landscaping, and ecosystem services.