Finding the Balance For Deer Overpopulation

Gerald Benjamin, director of the Benjamin Center, held a panel discussing deer management and the ethics of hunting.  

The panel on Thursday, Sept. 28 was led by Professor David Elstein and included President Donald P. Christian and Professor Carol Reitsma. The discussion expanded upon the Benjamin Center’s 2016 paper, “The Hunt for Balance,” by New Paltz alumni Brent Miller. 

Overpopulation of deer has a significant impact on the environment, one that has been facilitated by human actions.

President Christian, an ecologist who has a PhD in zoology, explained how the actions of our predecessors have greatly impacted the deer population.

“Humans have dramatically reduced the amount of predators of the white-tailed deer,” he said. “The way we have changed our environment is the best it’s ever been for deer.”

By 1875, almost all white-tailed deer were killed due to unregulated hunting and harsh winters. In response, legislation was passed protecting deer population, but not for their predators. This led to massive amount of wolves, coyote and bear to be killed and allowed the deer to repopulate fairly unchecked.  

As humans began to develop the deer’s natural habitats, they replaced natural vegetation with an abundance of new garden plants the deer thrived off. 

However, as the birth rate exceeds the death rate, overbrowsing from the deer leaves the food supply desperately scarce. 

Overbrowsing from the deer means the deer have been feeding on too much of the vegetation in a given area.

Reitsma has conducted detailed research on overbrowsing in our region. Her main concern was the damage overbrowsing was doing to the Chestnut Oak Forest, which makes up 46 percent of the North Shawangunk Mountains. 

Reitsma conducted a test where she fenced off a portion of the preserve and documented the growth and diversity of the saplings within it. She discovered the plot of land that was unbrowsed had a greater abundance and diversity of sapling than the overbrowsed forest.

This lack of food does not only impact the deer population but also the other animals who rely on the same food source. Starvation leads deer into residential neighborhoods, where they terrorize backyard gardens and collide with oncoming traffic. 

So far, the most efficient means of population control is through hunting. Although people recognize the importance of deer management, many are hesitant to pull the trigger.   

As opposed to frightening animals like coyote, deer are generally viewed in a positive light. Many residents enjoy seeing families wander through their yards and do not wish to inflict pain on them.

Professor Elstein, chair of the philosophy department, described the dilemma between harming a living being, and the issues of deer management.

“Animal suffering and pain is the main concern,” Elstein said. “Is it justifiable, are there alternative methods and is controlling the population of an animal the right thing to do?” 

In Staten Island, veterinarians subdued and neutered buck so they could not reproduce. While this method has been found productive on an island, it is less feasible in the rest of the New York region.    

“If we focus on the suffering of deer, we might lose sight of the big picture,” Elstein said.

To promote responsible hunting methods, Mohonk Preserve holds its hunters accountable to their hunts. They require logs of hunts, as well reports and park ranger checks before leaving with a deer. Cash rebates are awarded to harvesting doe, who contribute most to the population bloom.

Hunting can not only benefit the environment, but also local communities. 

Hunters have also found a way to give back to the community. The Venison Donation Coalition is a nonprofit organization that has provided an average of 39 tons of venison per year to families in need. 

While the realities of deer management are unpleasant, complacency carries consequences and solutions are vital to the overall environmental well-being. 

After facilitating this population bloom, Christian noted that there is a “moral responsibility to protect these deer.” 

The Benjamin Center is a SUNY New Paltz research organization dedicated to educating the public on regional issues and promoting community collaboration. Benjamin is the chair of the department of political science and is considered the foremost expert on local and state government.