Outside observers are often surprised by the bitterness that has characterized the deer debate in our community. Many assume it arises from widespread opposition to the Cayuga Heights government's intent to carry out the mass killing of human-habituated deer in neighborhood backyards using net and bolt slaughter, an unprecedented act in New York State. No doubt this explains much of the controversy. But the bitterness, I would argue, comes from a different source, the willingness of those supporting the killing to repeatedly violate two of the core values of our community: public integrity and intellectual honesty.

Recent coverage of this issue by the Ithaca Times provides a prime example. The editorial three weeks ago disdainfully characterized the many who oppose the kill program as operating from "Victorian sentimentality" and implied, falsely, that their concerns are not based on science. This week, the bias toward killing deer was again on full display as reporter Bill Chaisson presented factually incorrect information that will surely mislead those in the community who are not already well-informed about this issue, and further alienate the many who are.

On the CayugaDeer.org website, statements can be found from several nationally respected scientists, all of whom offered their expert opinions, pro-bono, of Cayuga Heights' deer killing plan during the state-required public comment period. They characterized the plan's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) using these words: "Misleading," "deeply flawed," "lack of a scientific basis," "insufficient evidence," "no site-specific data," "commits a serious oversight," and "contains many inaccurate and unsupported statements." Chaisson attempts to brush off this overwhelming body of expert criticism by claiming that only one of these scientists, Dr. Oswald Schmitz of Yale, "holds the DEIS to account in any detail for anything other than its claim that the incidence of Lyme disease will be reduced through the culling of the deer population."

This is simply untrue. Dr. Allen T. Rutberg, a leading wildlife biologist and deer population expert at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, offered comprehensive criticism of numerous village claims having nothing to do with Lyme disease. For example, Dr. Rutberg states, "In Cayuga Heights, where deer population estimates apparently were stable between 2002 and 2006, there is certainly no sound basis to postulate a 10 percent increase over the four years that followed." This is significant, as the trustees have repeatedly presented as fact that the deer population in Cayuga Heights is spiraling ever upward, concocting a false "crisis" and along with it the "need" to carry out an expensive, dangerous and ultimately futile extermination plan.

In its editorial, the Ithaca Times asserted: "true progressivism emphasizes scientific solutions in the name of reform." It is beyond ironic, and frankly professionally irresponsible, to then publish an article that inaccurately reports the nature and scope of community-specific scientific evaluations that refute the rationale for the killing. Furthermore, it is disingenuous for Chaisson to underplay the importance of two national-level experts refuting the claim that killing deer will somehow lower rates of Lyme disease. After all, this scientifically fallacious misinformation is part of the official rationale given in the DEIS for killing deer, and has been repeated at public gatherings and in the media ad nauseum by the mayor and trustees for over two years.

Nearly every one of the ever-changing justifications for the killing plan has been conclusively refuted by qualified professionals at top institutions around the country and by numerous senior faculty members of Cornell. Many of these experts have also raised concerns about the plan's negative cultural, psychological, and financial impacts. Five professors at Cornell's law school identified numerous ways the killing program violates both the letter and spirit of the law. To dismiss the considered evaluations and sincere concerns of so many accomplished and well-respected experts as being a product of "sentimentality" is both preposterous and perverse. This is only underscored by the fact that the scientists who offered their opinions did so at the request of Cayuga Heights resident Ann Druyan, who is admired around the world as a forward-thinking science educator and is famous for her groundbreaking work with the late Carl Sagan.

The people of our community understand that our elected officials, and members of the media, have their own opinions on local issues. At the same time, we trust them not to let their opinions undermine the quality and veracity of their presentation of basic facts to the public. When that trust is broken, the same degradation of discourse that afflicts our national political dialogue plays out at the local level. This is one situation when getting the facts right, and fairly reporting them, actually matters. Ithaca Times, you can do so much better than this. When you do, you'll be respecting the people on all sides of this debate and performing a great service for our community.

(5) comments

Bill Chaisson

As someone who has a Ph.D. I am not instantly impressed by the opinions of other Ph.D.s. CayugaDeer.org has posted exactly four letters from biologists who have read the Cayuga Heights EIS and found it wanting. I'm sorry, but a letter from a researcher with his or her own axe to grind on a particular subject is no match for a researcher who has actually studied the problem on the ground. Cornell biologists have studied the local deer herd first hand and come to the conclusion that its numbers need to be reduced.

Mr. LaVeck ignored that qualifier in my sentence about the Rutberg's letter. I said that he did not refute anything other than the Lyme disease claim "in any detail." He didn't.

I will agree with Mr. LaVeck (and Prof. Rutberg) that the Lyme disease claim as a justification for killing deer is baseless. The entire thrust of my article was that there are sufficient ecological and management reasons for culling the deer herd. No public health or (worse yet) economic arguments related to the cost of landscape plants are needed.

To set "senior faculty members at Cornell" from the history and regional planning departments against those in natural resources in a discussion of deer management is like assuming that the natural resources faculty opinions would trump those of their colleagues if the subject were the Whig interpretation of history or the social capital implications of greenways. LaVeck is either grasping at straws or simply doesn't understand the academy.

Sometimes it is refreshing to hear the opinion of a specialist from another field in the midst of an academic debate. After all, it took a physicist to get geologists to embrace the idea of an asteroid as the cause of a mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. But in the case of Cayuga Heights deer management LaVeck and the others in CayugaDeer,org are clearly just using the academic credentials of others to prop up an argument routed in ... sentimentality. His claim that he is basing his position in science indicates that he doesn't understand science. In this he has a lot of company, including a lot of scientists.

George Nagle

I find Mr. Chaisson's comment extremely unprofessional, inappropriate, and unwarranted. I'm an ex-hunter, and have studied deer science and management extensively over the past decade. The independent experts from Harvard, the Cary Institute, Tufts University and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, that Mr. Chaisson appears to dismiss with “axes to grind,” are renowned and respected experts in their fields. I've read and studied their work, and have also reviewed their responses to Cayuga Heights’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and totally agree with their extensive criticisms. In their words: "Misleading”, “deeply flawed”, “lack of a scientific basis”, “insufficient evidence”, “no site-specific data” “commits a serious oversight”, “contains many inaccurate and unsupported statements,” etc. For Mr. Chaisson to say they found it "wanting", is a gross understatement and IMO, intellectually dishonest.

As for Cornell researchers who have studied the "problem" on the ground, I'm not aware of any recent deer population surveys. I'm not aware of any environmental or biodiversity damage studies. Dr. Allen Rutberg wrote, "the Village appears to have no information at all on deer impacts on ornamental plantings or on biodiversity that are specific to the Village itself..." So please tell me how the Cornell researchers came to the conclusion that the deer numbers need to be reduced? Where's the local data?

The independent national experts reviewed the DEIS pro bono. However, I watched a video on Cayugadeer.org about an unspecified $275,000 item on Cayuga Heights cost analysis for the deer program that appears to be going to a "Cornell researcher". As I understand, the trustees never would answer questions from their own tax-paying constituents about what this money would pay for. This raises a serious conflict of interest concern. Cornell researchers tell Cayuga Heights that they have a deer problem, and they get paid $275,000 to help them resolve it. IMO, this raises the question of the objectivity of the Cornell researchers.

In addition, the ongoing funding of Cornell's Integrated Deer Research and Management Study depends on its effectiveness. One might assume that this could influence their interpretation of their program's results. Furthermore, Cornell's natural resources dept. and their deer mgt. program seems to have a relationship with the wildlife division (in other words, game commission) of New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This department of the DEC is funded by hunters to propagate the deer population for their hunter constituents. Again, this raises a flag about objectivity. I've never read anything from Cornell's deer program biologists that point the finger at the DEC for propagating the deer population as one of the main reasons for the increase in suburban deer populations. When I read Mr. Chaisson's recent editorial, article and comment on the topic, I get the impression that he is acting as a mouthpiece for Cornell's deer mgt program, the Cayuga Heights Trustees, and the DEC. I see no independent evaluation (professional distance) or tough investigative questions asked of these power brokers. That's what I thought objective newspaper reporters were supposed to do.

George Nagle

Mr. Chaisson wrote - "Mr. LaVeck ignored that qualifier in my sentence about the Rutberg's letter. I said that he did not refute anything other than the Lyme disease claim "in any detail." He didn't."

My response - Dr. Rutberg wrote, “In building a case for taking action, the DEIS makes clear that it is the impacts of the deer, rather than their numbers, that should shape management actions. However, the objectives of the proposed management effort are expressed only in terms of deer numbers... the Village appears to have no information at all on deer impacts on ornamental plantings or on biodiversity that are specific to the Village itself..." This is just one brief comment by Dr. Rutberg regarding the DEIS. How much detail does Mr. Chaisson want? IMO, Mr. Chaisson's again misleads the reader to believe that these experts didn't find serious flaws in the DEIS.

Mr. Chaisson wrote - "The entire thrust of my article was that there are sufficient ecological and management reasons for culling the deer herd. No public health or (worse yet) economic arguments related to the cost of landscape plants are needed."

My response - I've read Mr. Chaisson's recent editorial, article and comment on topic, and I've not seen him present one shred of evidence of ecological and management reasons for culling the Cayuga Heights deer herd. I will be posting a previous comment from last Sunday, that he didn't respond to, requesting this evidence. I hope that he'll comply.

Mr. Chaisson wrote - "But in the case of Cayuga Heights deer management LaVeck and the others in CayugaDeer,org are clearly just using the academic credentials of others to prop up an argument routed in ... sentimentality. His claim that he is basing his position in science indicates that he doesn't understand science. In this he has a lot of company, including a lot of scientists."

My response - I find this final rebuttal comment by Mr. Chaisson ridiculous, i.e. Mr. LaVeck and a lot of scientists don't understand science. Apparently only Mr. Chaisson understands science. Mr. Chaisson dismisses extensive criticisms by the leading independent scientists in the country in the areas specifically focused on in the DEIS, I guess, because they don't understand science. How do you debate someone who doesn't care about facts?

The "deer problem" in Cayuga Heights is a deer browsing issue for some residents, not a deer population problem. Killing deer is not an effective solution to deer browsing. The remaining deer will still eat the residents’ tulips if they plant them. A mass killing of deer will trigger compensatory reproduction, and you will have just as many deer next year or more, leading to an endless cycle of killing. In addition, deer will fill the void from adjacent communities. The only effective solution to deer browsing is planting deer resistant flowers and shrubs, using repellents/deterrents, and fencing. The Cayuga Heights Trustees are planning to implement a one million dollar (tax dollars) inhumane net and bolt killing program that will not even address the main "deer problem" in Cayuga Heights.

George Nagle

Since Bill Chaisson is commenting on his recent articles, I was hoping that he would respond to my earlier post of Sunday July 24, 2011. I will just summarize a few of my requests from that post below. I'm requesting that Mr. Chaisson post some evidence to substantiate his following claims.

* He claims that the Cayuga Heights deer are starving to death, as does the Ithaca Times opinion poll. This is absolutely not true.
* He claims that the deer have caused serious damage to the ecosystem of Cayuga Heights. I've found no evidence to support this claim.
* He claims that the deer resistant plant list keeps getting shorter, which is a sign of stress caused by overpopulation. All the deer resistant plant lists I use and recommend have not shortened, and are extremely effective.
* He claims that very thin deer are already in evidence. I have found no evidence to support this very subjective claim.
* He claims that chronic wasting disease is related to undernourished deer. This is not true.

Thanks in advance for your responses. You can reference my entire original comment posted on the editorial, "Oh Brother Deer, Where Art Thou?"

Bill Chaisson

* He claims that the Cayuga Heights deer are starving to death, as does the Ithaca Times opinion poll. This is absolutely not true.

Actually I did not make this claim. I said that culling and sterilization should be undertaken to avoid having the deer starve.

* He claims that the deer have caused serious damage to the ecosystem of Cayuga Heights. I've found no evidence to support this claim.

I did not make this claim either. I cited Lynn Leopold's observations on her own land in the adjacent village of Lansing. The deer population is, if anything, more dense in Cayuga Heights than in the village of Lansing, and yet Lansing has a culling program.

* He claims that the deer resistant plant list keeps getting shorter, which is a sign of stress caused by overpopulation. All the deer resistant plant lists I use and recommend have not shortened, and are extremely effective.

I do maintain this claim from personal experience and from talking to many, many gardeners in this area and elsewhere.

* He claims that very thin deer are already in evidence. I have found no evidence to support this very subjective claim.

I have personally observed deer on South Hill that are very, very thin (all of their ribs showing). I did not make the claim that the deer are thin in Cayuga Heights. I do not want to wait for them to get thin. See above.

* He claims that chronic wasting disease is related to undernourished deer. This is not true.

I did not make this claim. Chronic wasting is well known to be an infectious disease associated with over-dense deer populations. Deer gather in large herds only when their population densities are unnaturally high and they are high due to lack of predation. When populations become really high the deer become under-nourished. I observed this many years ago at the Crane Reservation in Ipswich, Mass. And because I actually quite like deer, I don't want to see it again.

As for Mr. LaVeck continued championing of experts who have never visited this area over the recent field work of Cornell's Department of Natural Resources conducted in Cayuga Heights and in the surrounding areas, I'm not sure how to respond. He and other readers seem to simply ignore the existence of these studies and the fact that Cayuga Heights and the city of Ithaca are the only places were hunting is not permitted in this area. And as the DEC's Steve Joule noted, "Deer aren't stupid. They will go where there is no hunting."

At variance with the perception of some letter writers, hunting as a folkway is on the decline, which is major influence on the decades-long rise in the deer population. The DEC's various attempts to encourage hunting are increasingly desperate. The growth of the suburbs and the spread of ex-suburbanites to exurbs has increased the amount of acreage that has been made into prime deer habitat while at the same time made it logistically and culturally difficult to cull the herd.

I wrote in my editorial that I would support a reintroduction of deer predators. I recently read in the New York Times that a mountain lion hit by a car in Connecticut had walked there from the Black HIlls in South Dakota. Frankly, my heart leapt. I hope that they return on their own and that order is restored.

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