Answers to Common Questions about the Deer Management Program for the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve
Q. Why did the college implement this program?
A. The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) is committed to “protect and preserve the ecological diversity of the land.” The college has seen that overabundant deer prevent the establishment of young trees and reduce plant diversity in the forests of the VFEP. Because of intense consumption by these deer very few saplings are able to grow above the browse line. Without saplings in the forest there are no young trees to replace the older canopy trees. The combined lack of tree regeneration and loss of diversity threatens the long-term health of this forest. 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 must reduce the deer population there.
Q. What long-term ecological damage is caused by the overpopulation of deer?
A. A variety of damage has occurred:
- The overpopulation is dramatically altering the entire forest structure of the VFEP. Young trees are particularly vulnerable to deer browsing during the winter, when there is little else for the deer to eat. This inhibits forest regeneration 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. Overconsumption causes the number of native plants to decline and makes more space for less palatable, invasive species to flourish. These factors greatly reduce the number of plant species we find in our forests. This vegetation decline also harms birds, reptiles, amphibians, spiders -- and even deer -- because food sources and habitat are eliminated.
Q. Does the deer overpopulation affect the surrounding neighborhoods?
A. High densities of deer are correlated to higher incidence of tick borne diseases. Collisions between deer and vehicles are also more frequent.
Q. How many deer are on the VFEP?
A. Using an infrared aerial flyover photograph taken in March 2017 we estimated that the deer population on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve was 42 animals per square mile. This was before the year’s fawns were born, which considerably increased the numbers. The population density of deer that can be supported without causing ecological degradation varies between sites. Most studies estimate that a density between 10 and 20 deer per square mile is optimal, and that damage to plant and animal communities occurs when populations exceed that range. Sites such as the VFEP that are degraded due to long-term overconsumption by deer require lower densities for recovery to begin.
This map reflects an infrared flyover photograph taken of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve in early March 2017, showing a population of 42 deer per square mile within the survey area outlined in red. Each red dot on the map indicates a deer.
Q. Why is there deer overpopulation here?
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, create plentiful edge habitats and abundant food supplies that draw deer. Because the deer have very few natural predators in this locale their population grows unchecked.
Q. Why does Vassar have sharpshooters cull the deer?
A. We investigated all available deer management options and concluded that sharpshooting conducted by a professional organization is the best approach for our site. Since 2010 we have had repeated culls conducted this way without safety problems. Wildlife management professionals work from locations at the VFEP which are far from neighboring residences and businesses. Sharpshooting is also often considered the most humane method because the accuracy rarely leaves a wounded animal to suffer.
Q. Who culls the deer and when?
A. Staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services conduct the culls at night when the VFEP is closed. For similar safety reasons the culls are completed during the college’s winter break when the fewest people are using 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 VFEP including the size of the deer population there. The college will continue to use these findings to assess and adjust its management strategies.
Q. What happens to the deer after they are culled?
A. The venison is processed by volunteers and donated to food pantries through Hunters Helping the Hungry, a longtime program run by the Federation of Dutchess County Fish and Game Clubs. With this venison it’s estimated that over 30,000 meals have been provided to people in need.
Q. What other deer population management options did Vassar explore?
A. This is what we learned about other options:
- 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.
- Immunocontraception is not approved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for deer management. Research shows it is unproven, difficult, and expensive to implement.
- Shotgun hunting during the permitted New York State season would be illegal, as well as dangerous for our neighbors and the users of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve.
- Archery hunting is prohibited outside of the traditional fall hunting season by New York State law.
Q. Do other organizations in the region manage their deer populations?
A. Carefully controlled shooting 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), and Swarthmore College (outside Philadelphia). USDA Wildlife Services conducts culls for the National Park Service in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park and Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park, among several locations. Whereas Hudson Valley organizations such as the Mohonk Preserve and Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies invite hunters on their lands to control the deer population, Vassar will not allow hunting at the VFEP. It is illegal, let alone the safety risks given the residential surroundings and the high level of activity on the farm and preserve during the traditional hunting season.