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.