The New York State Supreme Court ruled in December that Binghamton University’s deer culling plan did not comply with state legislation. The ruling eliminated earlier plans to cull deer over winter break.
BU had planned to systematically kill 90 percent of the 60 to 70 deer on campus, citing the danger that overpopulation posed to the Nature Preserve. C. Peter Magrath, who was still University president at the time, made the decision to hire White Buffalo Inc. to do the culling over winter break.
Justice Molly Fitzgerald ruled that a State Environment Quality Review (SEQR) study — an assessment of environmental impacts of the proposal — is needed before any culling plan moves forward.
“What is important is that our agencies comply with the law, both procedural and substantive,” Fitzgerald explained in her decision. “In the case at bar, defendants have, to date, fallen short of their procedural obligations. Defendants are therefore temporarily restrained from their deer culling plan.”
Charles Carpenter, a former BU English professor and Vestal resident who lives near the Nature Preserve, along with In Defense of Animals (IDA), a national non-profit organization, filed a suit against BU to prevent the deer culling. The plaintiffs argued that the culling would pose “a significant safety risk to the citizens of the area” and that “the University should have conducted a ‘safety study’ prior to deciding,” according to court documents.
The documents list SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and former President Magrath as defendants.
Barbara Stagno, NY state chair of IDA, said the organization regularly takes action to protect the rights, welfare and habitats of animals.
Stagno believes that deer culling is a misunderstood topic.
“The current standard ‘management’ of killing deer to protect forests is both ineffective and unethical,” Stagno said. “The proof lies in the state of forests around the U.S. where deer hunting is prevalent and the forests are still not healthy.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation initially issued the original nuisance permit allowing BU to cull deer out of hunting season, according to Emily DeSantis, director of public information for the DEC. A nuisance permit — or a Nuisance Wildlife Control License — is issued to individuals that permits them to interfere with wildlife when it becomes a problem.
The original permit was provided because the DEC, along with the University, did not think the SEQR study was necessary to cull deer, according to DeSantis.
DeSantis said that the DEC had determined that culling the deer would not have a negative impact on the environment, and therefore was a Type II action, which declares that the action did not require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Julian Shepherd, associate professor of biological sciences and co-chair of the Committee for the University Environment (CUE), said he considered deer culling to be a Type II action.
“We see our actions as improving the environment, especially as we don’t want to eliminate all the deer,” Shepherd said. “So I guess I would say that the judge’s decision is arguable, but we would rather comply than appeal, since the SEQR process is not unduly arduous.”
Shepard said that CUE, a group made up of students, faculty and administrators, along with help from the administration, will do the “groundwork” to prepare an EIS, which will hopefully be ready by next fall.
“Culling still looks like to be, by far, the best option for what we want to accomplish, but of course we will continue to consider other options,” Shepherd said.
Richard Andrus, associate professor of environmental studies and biological sciences and a CUE member, was disappointed with the court’s decision.
“I don’t think it was justified as DEC had already approved of our plan and their procedure was already cleared to not require SEQR,” Andrus said in an email. “The DEC people were just a surprised as us.”
Andrus advised that those who are skeptical of deer culling should take a walk behind BU’s College-in-the-Woods residential community and look at the “browse line,” the height of vegetation to which the deer have eaten.
“In the CIW forest you can see a very long distance because there is virtually no living vegetation below five feet in height,” Andrus said. “This is completely unnatural and indicates a forest in very bad shape.”
James Van Voorst, vice president for administration and co-chair of CUE, said that a SEQR study was now necessary in order to proceed with the culling plans.
“First question will be whether or not to pursue the study,” Van Voorst said. “The judge’s ruling was quite specific, to pursue this course of action, a SEQR is needed. [We] may look at alternatives.”
CUE and the University are concerned about the condition of Nature Preserve, according to Van Voorst.
“The Nature Preserve is an important part of this campus, on many levels,” Van Voorst said. “We will move forward in a very deliberate way to protect the Nature Preserve. We’ll continue to do it in a very open manner, will be very open in our discussions.”
Van Voorst also recognized that people have strong feelings on both sides of the issue.
Jodi Minion, wildlife biologist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said PETA was relieved to learn that plans to “gun down” deer are currently on hold.
“Tried and true urban-wildlife management plans are integrative and adaptive — the only permanent solution is for the University to reduce or eliminate access to food sources,” Minion said.
Minion said the University, as an alternative to culling, should plant a native vegetation that has a natural resistance to deer browsing, elicit help from students in applying natural deer repellents and install fencing to keep deer away from sensitive areas.
In a statement to Pipe Dream, University President Harvey G. Stenger said the decision to cull requires further examination.
“I have spoken at length with the chairpersons of Committee on University Environment (CUE) and our Nature Preserve steward about the proposed solution and the legal injunctions that ensued,” Stenger said. “Because the injunction has indefinitely delayed the proposed solution, I will use that delay to engage in further dialogue and analysis before actions are taken.”
Jeanette Russo, a junior majoring in psychology, said she believes that deer culling would be beneficial for the preservation of the Nature Preserve.
“The goal isn’t to drive the white tailed deer into extinction,” Russo said. “The goal is to control the population to prevent more problems in the future.”
Shepherd said students have been highly active during this process.
“Of all our constituencies, students have been the most comprehending and accepting of our arguments, and I hope it continues that way,” Shepherd said.