Controlled Bowhunt Frequently Asked Questions
In less than one square mile, Binghamton University's Nature Preserve contains 260 deer where (research suggests) there should be only 15 or 20 to be considered in balance with a healthy forest. White-tailed deer are overpopulated throughout the East Coast as well as many parts of the world; Binghamton University's campus is an extreme example and a harbinger of the future of many forests. The University's Committee for the University Environment reviewed different options and it became clear that a controlled hunt is the current effective option to help re-establish the Nature Preserve as the outdoor laboratory and recreational area it is meant to be.
What is a controlled hunt?
A controlled hunt is a restricted hunt done over a couple of days by a limited number of hunters. The number of total deer possible for the hunt has been limited to 50, but the number will likely be much less for this year.
What safety measures are in place?
The hunt is being conducted following regulations set by the NYS, DEC and Vestal. The hunt is being held when school is not in session and in the early morning hours. This is the time when there are the fewest people using the Nature Preserve. Binghamton University Police will cordon off entrances and exits of the Nature Preserve to stop anyone from entering the area.
How were the hunters chosen to be a part of the hunt?
Applications were submitted to the Binghamton University Chief of Police and all hunters were interviewed as part of this pilot program. A select number of seasoned, experienced bowhunters were selected. If this pilot program goes well, the hunter application process may be opened to a larger number of community members next time.
Why are the deer overpopulated?
Deer populations are high because of a combination of factors. The East Coast does not have any effective large predators of deer. Wolves and pumas were hunted out long ago. Our remaining predators (coyote, bear, bobcat) don't reduce the deer population significantly in most regions and certainly not on Binghamton University property. Habitat fragmentation caused by development practices gives deer the perfect mix of forest and open areas: edge habitat caused by changes in population or community structures at the boundary of two or more habitats. Especially on campus, deer have become habituated to people and feel perfectly safe around our buildings. Hunting policies over the last century were a reaction to the near extinction of deer twice in U.S. history (mostly from habitat loss), so traditional hunting policies are aimed at keeping the deer population at a higher abundance in order to give hunters a greater chance of harvesting deer. Hunting regulations have started to change slowly as regulatory agencies are aware of deer overabundance, but it takes a lot of education and willingness to change on the parts of all stakeholders.
If they've eaten everything in the forest, why don't deer starve to death?
Although we did have six deer starve to death a few winters ago, the deer eat whatever starts to grow in the forest during the day, and at night, they eat plantings/lawns on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods. In the winter of 2014-15, the deer survived on a mast year of acorns (a large accumulation of acorns on the forest floor); otherwise, we probably would have seen more starve. This past winter, 2018-2019, we were in another mast year of acorns.
What are the effects of deer overabundance?
The Nature Preserve has lost more than wildflowers and a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of the forest (understory). It has lost the ability to regenerate; no tree seedlings survive to replace fallen trees. Each tree we lose will be the last in that spot until deer numbers are reduced. Once all the current trees fall, we are unsure what will be left: perhaps goldenrod fields, or invasive bushes (multiflora rose, barberry, autumn olive) or nothing but eroded, bare ground. There is already some indication from various gaps in the forest where trees have fallen where examples of all these possibilities exist. The loss of wildflowers, understory and tree seedlings affects the biodiversity of our forests as we are slowly losing other wildlife. Several species of ground nesting birds no longer nest here anymore. Small- and medium-sized mammals are declining and after a while, there will only be chipmunks and grey squirrels left.
The upper elevation portion of our deer population is often near a state of starvation while the deer that feed on campus/neighborhoods are not. For a healthy forest, we should have 15-20 deer on campus and (based on an aerial infrared count) we have 260+ deer that live or use our property.
What are the options for deer management and the reasons they have or have not been chosen?
Fencing: Fencing off the forest. Given the size and landscape of the Nature Preserve, fencing off the entire area isn't feasible. Our goal is not to trap deer inside the Nature Preserve, nor do we want to exclude other wildlife from entering. Deer that are trapped inside the forest would most likely starve to death. We have created 8 fences for research and demonstration of the effects of deer overabundance.
Translocation: (Moving deer to other areas) Deer already saturate the environment, so there isn't really any place to move them. Moving deer is cruel to the deer. Published research shows that 30% to 80% of deer can die from the stress; some researchers suggest that might be as high as 95%. Also, it's illegal in New York state to move deer because of concerns of disease.
Sterilization: There are two methods of sterilization of deer: administering drugs (contraceptives), often through darting, or performing surgery to remove their ovaries. Contraceptives sometimes reduce deer numbers over a long time (success is achieved in closed populations), but haven't been shown to help forest ecosystems. The deer are still abundant for 15 years or more to keep damaging the forest to the point that forests cannot recover. Deer learn to avoid being darted since they survive the initial encounter, therefore, success diminishes over time. In addition, infertility likely causes hormonal havoc to the deer as has been shown in other animals. Females go into heat (estrous) longer and males may stay in mating mode for a longer amount of time, causing starvation.
Culling: There are many different ways to cull deer. Sometimes deer are caught in nets and either shot or injected. Other times, hiring professionals for baiting and sharpshooting is an option. When done correctly, culling has been shown to reduce deer numbers sufficiently to allow forest ecosystems to begin recovery. Culling has to be repeated every few years until the population is reduced enough that other strategies (controlled bowhunting or smaller cullings) can be implemented. It's not a one-time solution.
Hunting: Hunting would be most effective as a way to maintain a lower deer population after culling. However, if culling is not an option, then hunting will help. Hunting will have to be repeated every year. Hunting on campus can be done in late season: a short period of time when the majority of students have left campus and use of the natural areas is low. Bow and crossbow hunting would be the only methods allowed, with only hunters who have permission. Many parks and state lands allow hunting in various forms and many municipalities have urban bowhunting programs (Washington, D.C., is a good example). A controlled hunt is the option chosen at this time.