In the Northeast, people have a complicated relationship with deer.
Deer are beautiful animals that many (myself included) love to view and love to photograph; deer are also a game species that many hunters value, too. But, in many parts of the Northeast (like here in Ithaca, New York), there are a lot of deer.
And with too many deer comes conflict. No one wants to see his or her garden chomped. No one wants to hit a deer on the highway (or have a deer hit you while you’re stopped at a stop sign—I speak from experience!). Lyme disease is a real concern, too.
So, what do we (as individuals, communities, or management agencies) do? How do we balance the things we value about deer with the real concerns that come with their overabundance?
In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation has partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension in a longstanding effort to involve citizens in task forces to help make better decisions about deer; other states in the region (like Pennsylvania and Maine) have modeled their own citizen involvement processes after New York’s citizen task forces.
Some communities with passionate conflict over deer have engaged in community-based deer management. For example, Cayuga Heights, New York—Ithaca’s neighbor—has convened deer remediation advisory committees (consisting of local residents and municipal officials) to provide guidance on what the town should do to manage their deer.
And over at Cornell University, in the Human Dimensions Research Unit (where I’m a graduate student), researchers study citizen participation in deer management (along with other social aspects of natural resources management and policy) in order to help better manage human-wildlife conflict and its impact on wildlife conservation.
My own feelings towards deer are also complex. Last week on a short drive to the Ithaca Airport at 4:30 in the morning, I slowed down for seven different deer peering at me from the side of the road as I passed by. With each pair of eyes I noticed reflecting the light from my headlights, I had that familiar fear of one of those critters racing out in front of my car—hurting either the deer or my car (or myself).
But I also never tire of the chance to observe them.
Not only are they lovely to watch, but they are also held in trust by the State of New York for citizens like myself (and future citizens, too), so I feel a certain connection and responsibility towards them.
Yes, deer and people have a complicated relationship. And many of us disagree over how best to manage that relationship.
But I believe that citizen involvement in deer management decisions—whether in providing feedback to local wildlife managers, engaging in processes like the citizen task forces, or creating a community-based deer program, are invaluable in managing our relationship with deer.
Hopefully, together we can find ways to coexist with deer into the future. And in New York State, we are trying.