October 23, 2021

Keeping deer herds in check

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Resident Naturalist Peter Harrity, left, Sam Payne, 12, and Tom Rawinski, a U.S. Forest Service botanist, spot a flycatcher in a nearby tree at the Lime Hollow Nature Center as they walk the property to monitor damage to saplings from deer browsing.

In Tom Rawinski’s opinion, the socalled “Crime of “43” was no crime at all. That alleged crime was the culling of deer herds, as advocated by renowned naturalist Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin in 1943.

Today, what once was considered almost sacrilege would be called doe season. And Rawinski was in Cortlandville last week to promote the concept even as he reviewed Lime Hollow Nature Center’s deer-control program.

Rawinski thinks Leopold was on the right track. Deer herds, especially in the northeastern and midwestern United States, are no longer a harmonious part of nature. They have become a pest, and a destructive one, as well as a carrier for tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease.

That has been and continues to be true at Lime Hollow, where the deer herd, on an area of roughly one square mile, is “well above 30,” said Glenn Reisweber, executive director at the center. The optimal number is between 8 and 12 deer per square mile.

Because of this, Rawinski said, the center’s staff has no choice, as responsible land stewards, but to control their populations.

Rawinski, a U.S. Forest Service botanist based in Durham, N.H., tries to spread his knowledge everywhere he goes. Such as at the Lime Hollow Nature Center, where he was Friday morning, helping Peter Harrity, the center’s resident naturalist and assistant director, and a homeschooled student, 12-yearold Sam Payne, with a deer-monitoring program that Rawinski helped initiate six years ago.

They measured their sample areas Friday. The program monitors the growth of saplings and underbrush in areas enclosed by deer-proof fences, compared to areas where deer are free to browse. They check 10 plant species that deer find the most desirable to eat. If the most popular plants are all eaten and deer have moved to the less popular plants, that’s bad news for the ecosystem, Reisweber said. And that’s exactly what Rawinski and Harrity found.

That data is then sent to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It was through this agency that Lime Hollow first received permits six years ago to cull its deer population, an effort that has continued since then.

The data, Rawiniski said, are clear: Deer overpopulation results in overbrowsing, which means damage to the ecosystem. Since they found confirmation of that Friday, they are asking DEC for permission to expand a program that lets the center issue permits to bow hunters to cull the deer herd further.

“Based on what we saw the other day, we’re seeing neglible impact on the deer herd,” Reisweber said.

Beyond ecological concerns, the welfare of human beings, and especially children, also must be considered, he said. Because ticks have become so prevalent, and Lyme Disease so widespread, more people are afraid of the outdoors, and especially fear their kids going outdoors.

The fear is something that Harrity hopes to counteract, partly through the center’s efforts to reduce deer (and thereby tick) populations, but also through education programs.

“How are you going to teach kids about nature unless they’re out there?” Harrity said.

The education programs transmit practical knowledge, too. Sam Payne is a good example, Harrity said. He and other kids who frequent the center have become “expert tick checkers,” to the point that tick prevention — using repellent, tucking pants into socks and checking for ticks several times a day — is just a normal part of every excursion outdoors.

“Look!” Sam said as he, Harrity, and Rawinski went out to check their monitoring areas. He and Harrity pulled out their binoculars. It was a flycatcher, Sam was certain, but he wasn’t quite sure of the species. Harrity agreed, praising Sam’s keen eye, and telling Rawinksi that the pupil was outpacing his teacher.