Studying Deer Impacts at New York’s Binghamton University

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Ever since DEERLAND hit the streets, readers have been sharing with me their stories and photos. Some are ordinary citizens, like the woman from Long Island who sent me before-and-after photos of what happens when exploding deer populations far exceed what their habitat can support.  Others are botanists and ecologists whose job it is to get out into the woods—or at least what’s left of them—and actually study the ecological impacts of overabundant deer.

One of those experts is Tom Rawinski, a botanist with the USDA Forest Service.  He’s just shared a trip report from his recent assessment of deer impacts at New York’s Binghamton University, and both the numbers and the images are astounding.

(Before I continue, I should mention that Binghamton has experts of its own who study deer impacts on the university’s 900-acre campus, over 600 acres of which is in an undeveloped natural state.  They include Drs. Richard Andrus and John Titus, plus Dylan Horvath, who’s responsible for managing the university’s nature preserve.  Most universities have botany professors who can help students better understand deer impacts.  But professors at Binghamton can actually show students these impacts right on their own campus—including the stark contrast visible at six different exclosures.)

Since Binghamton’s deer are totally habituated, and since there’s almost no understory where they could hide, they were especially easy to count.  In one 33-acre area, deer densities would extrapolate to 349 per square mile.  Over the entire 600-acre area, deer densities are currently at 145 per square mile, far above what’s sustainable.  In his report, Rawinski describes the clear ecological consequences: “At present, there are no trees, of any species, able to successfully regenerate in the B.U. forests.”

Rawinksi’s photos alone tell a story.  In the photo above, the forest understory is totally missing.  Below, the only green on the forest floor is from ferns and sedges that deer find unpalatable.

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Below, you can see an area that’s more visually appealing.  On these soils, a dense mat of sedge and grass dominates the understory.  It’s still, however, a sign of severe deer impacts.  This is not a healthy forest.

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The next photo shows an especially crisp, sharp browse line.  It almost looks like humans have been out there with hedge trimmers.  But no.  Just extremely hungry deer.

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Finally, one last photo of a forest that’s open enough to accommodate a fast-paced game of disc golf.

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© 2014 Al Cambronne.  All photos courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski.

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.

6 thoughts on “Studying Deer Impacts at New York’s Binghamton University”

  1. I would think if landowners and state game commissioners had been doing their job overpopulation would be a non issue. Is there year round hunting by any safe method? Of both sexes of any age? If not that would be a good place to start.

    1. I think it might be a suburban area where regular hunting isn’t allowed. But who knows? Maybe at some point a managed hunt will be part of the solution.

  2. Dear Al, The Village of East Hampton is planning to spay all of its does this winter. There is almost no hunting in the Village, and protestors managed to stop a cull last winter. The Village Preservation Society raised $100,000 in just a few months to supplement the $30,000 set aside in the Village budget, and Tony de Nicola/White Buffalo will run the program. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve taken on community gardens for the Garden Club of East Hampton, and one of my responsibilities is the town Nature Trail and Wildlife Preserve, which is full of deer and invasive species. We’ve been able to plant some native trees protected by fences but the shrub layer is almost exclusively phragmites. I’ll let you know how the spay-a-doe program goes, and am hoping that five to ten years from now we’ll start to see some more vigorous native shrubs growing on the Nature Trail. Yours, Julie Sakellariadis

  3. Al:

    I’ve read and very much enjoyed Deerland.

    There are differences of pinion on the efficacy of sterilization

    Merlin Benner, president of Wildlife Specialists LLC, a Tioga County consulting firm, presented a report Monday that he prepared for Mt. Lebanon (PA) commissioners about lethal and nonlethal deer management options. ….. Some methods he discussed have not yet been approved by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, including trapping and relocating, use of fertility control drugs, and surgical sterilization.

    Preventing reproduction would be “more what I’d consider maintenance techniques, if you’ve reached your goal and want to stay at that goal,” Mr. Brenner said.

    Another lethal method would be to trap and euthanize deer, but he said that has not been approved by the Game Commission, although it has been used in Mt. Lebanon in conjunction with controlled hunts.(end)


    Sterilization seems to me to be a feel-good attempt to subvert the natural balancing interplay between a prey animal and predators.. And it does nothing in the short term to address all of the problems associated with superabundant deer. Five to ten years is simply too long a lag time to determine whether it works.

    1. Keenan — Thanks for stopping by! I think you’re right; for the reasons I outlined in DEERLAND, translocation, contraception, and sterilization, are all ideas that are “good in theory.” But managed hunts or sharpshooting aren’t always easy answers, either. I guess that’s what makes this problem so interesting–there are no easy answers.

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