Staten Island's deer: Another modern wildlife management Petri dish

A little over three years ago, the Furbearer Conservation project blossomed from a mere trapping advocacy blog into a full critical commentary on the current state of wildlife management in North America. Since that time, we’ve touched on countless polarizing topics and concepts around how best to move forward with managing (rather than trying to stockpile) our cherished wildlife in the presence of human encroachment.

(Photo | Getty Images)

At the same time, Staten Island was making headlines by proposing deer vasectomies as an alternative to regulated hunting, in an attempt to reduce the urban ungulate’s overabundance in the borough. I touched on it briefly in a 2016 report on hunting participation, and several times elsewhere whilst speaking to local hunting clubs in the region.

To date, Staten Island has invested $4.1 million into their sterilization project, according to reports released Friday.

The city hired wildlife contractors White Buffalo to carry out the project in 2016. It would be the world’s first attempt to curb deer by sterilizing only males, according to media reports. The borough’s herd reached approximately 2,053 individuals in 2017 which amounted to an 8,454% increase in less than a decade.

White Buffalo has since sterilized 1,577 bucks, thus bringing the herd down by 316 animals for a newly announced population count of 1,737 deer, according to Friday’s reports.

In other words, the borough’s taxpayers have spent $12,975 per head to shave roughly 15% off the Island’s deer herd as an alternative to a regulated cull.

“The beneficial impact of their method is still years away,” Borough President James Oddo told The New York Post last week.

Deer graze in an urban neighborhood (Photo | Ryan Quick)

The news comes amid a national movement seeking to remove the human element from wildlife management, and perpetuate traditional wildlife management protocols (i.e. regulated hunting and trapping) as a supposed blight on wildlife populations. The movement circles around the reintroduction and protection of apex non-human predators to mitigate “trophic” impacts further down the food-chain - thus (in theory) proving no need for man’s involvement in the conservation of wildlife. A paradox that, for me personally, has taken an entire website to contend.

If only those “vile” hunters and trappers tasked with managing abundant populations of wildlife would “just let nature be” right?

Reports state that the deer’s overabundance on Staten Island caused 103 accidents on the city’s roads in 2018.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo continued in his interview that “crashes, increased incidence of [Lyme] disease, and the extinction of plant species and various ecosystems roll on” amid the local deer debacle.

Not Just A Topic on Deer

Cases of Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks, which are carried by, well… deer, among other critters, jumped by 250% in the borough between 2012 and 2016.

This means that not only are deer vasectomies not effectively curbing the city’s deer herd, but reports of Lyme disease also seem to be on the rise.

This caught my attention based on the fact that Staten Island is also home to other charismatic wildlife - the Opossum, and the Red Fox.

An opossum perches on an urban fence. (Photo | Wikipedia)

Today, social media info graphics perpetuating the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) as the end-all-be-all in tick control have flooded the internet. Based on reports from the Carry Institute, the opossum is regarded as a Lyme “controller” based on the animal’s grooming and ingestion of ticks that “hitch a ride on its hide”. This has prompted hunting critics to demand management of the opossum, which also carries a plethora of other potential diseases, should cease.

New York City’s opossum presence is thriving. Given that there’s no fur trapping or hunting taking place within the city for the animal’s hide, one would think that the borough would be Lyme-free; based on contention by trapping-critics who demand didelphis be left to “manage tick populations” unencumbered.

And yet, sadly, after years of foraging, Staten Island’s tick population hasn’t been fully eradicated by the area’s abundant opossum populations.

The Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes) is also in healthy abundance in and around the borough. Trapping critics have also contended that the red fox - a primary predator of Lyme vectors like the white-footed mouse - should also be free from regulated population management through hunting and trapping to allow for “control” of Lyme.

I’m not aware of any seasonal, regulated cull of didelphis or vulpes on Staten Island.

As we’ve reported previously, the benefits both these species have on the ecosystem are immense - but there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing” - as witnessed in urban compacts like Staten Island, where the pest and wildlife control industry thrives in the absence of regulated furbearer management on these and other species.

Say it isn’t so! But the internet said…

Release the Predators

Excuse my cynicism, but as an individual who’s carved out a career riding the cusp between ethical wildlife management facts and ulterior perpetuated public fictions, I can’t help but highlight the inconsistencies between the topic of deer management on Staten Island and the failed assertions being peddled by hunting critics across the country.

As pitchman Billy Mays used to say - “But Wait, There’s More!”

With the deer-sterilization fantasy leaving something to be desired for the borough’s citizens, the “rewilding” crowd, enamored with finding the crowned jewel that “nature can take care of itself” can still surely point to the “predator gods” for depredation reassurance, right?

Let’s just release droves of coyote/wolf hybrids into Staten Island - that would surely curb the “unbearable ungulate” issue, wouldn’t it?

Alas, coyotes (Canis latrans var) are also already dominating the urban predator scene in New York - and have been for years. Still, no noticeable relief from the rising deer populations.

Despite eastern coyotes and specialized contractor firms having a strong presence in the borough, the deer - and their noticeable nuisance on condensed human sprawl - seem to persevere.

At this rate, city officials should just go full circle and release bears on the Island; so residents, who are already being taxed for their wildlife petting zoo, can gawk at something else ravaging dumpsters and trash cans alongside the city’s coyotes, opossums, raccoons and Norway rats. Variety is the spice of life - right?

Pest Control or Natural Resources?

And when the city wakes up and decides its time to pull the proverbial trigger, contractors like White Buffalo also offer skilled sharpshooting to bring overabundant levels back down to desired numbers. Anything to stop New York’s deer hunting community from the seemingly “unpopular” regulated control and usage of natural resources. Urban officials seem more fixated on costly pipe-dreams over the thought of organizing a controlled bow hunt with local volunteer hunters.

Anti-hunting groups like the Humane Society of the United States herald wildlife “tube-tying” as the “humane alternative” to regulated hunting - despite accredited wildlife managers saying otherwise.

This write-up shouldn’t serve as a jab at the firms contracted by NYC officials to carry out this science experiment, either. Contract firms like White Buffalo and USDA’s Wildlife Services are clearly filling small voids in the wildlife control industry’s market, as society in urban meccas push harder for alternatives to citizens willing to hunt or trap.

Regardless, it seems that in this case the citizens of New York will have to face the music of a regulated cull at some point, or vacate the city and allow nature to “take its course” with a reclaiming of the once forested island.

Meanwhile, those of us who support regulated hunting and trapping as conservation cornerstones to promote healthy wildlife biodiversity amid man’s presence - well, we’ll gladly use the Staten Island debacle as a reference point.


A white-tailed deer saunters along a Staten Island roadway (Photo | kerfuffle & zeitgeist)

In reference to the deer issues plaguing Staten Island, I came upon some interesting insight from the deer hunting website

An improbable solution, no matter how expensive, will not address the growing deer population living on Staten Island. Let’s look at some assumptions made by NYC officials that need to be addressed:

1. “We do aim to get all of them [bucks] in order to completely limit the reproduction.” It has been assumed that contractors can actually put their hands on all of the bucks living on Staten Island. By the way, the island is almost 60 square miles.

First, there is no way to capture all of the bucks. Impossible. As you successfully sterilize bucks within the herd, the time and money it takes to capture the remaining bucks goes up exponentially as the number of untreated bucks declines. And, if you do not get them all the first year then the remaining bucks will breed the remaining does. Contractors would need to sterilize at least 90 percent of the buck herd in year one, otherwise all the work done during year one is for naught.

A short course on whitetail breeding ecology: A whitetail doe initially comes into estrus during the fall for a 2-3 day period. If she is not impregnated during the initial estrus period then she will continue to cycle every 28 days throughout the fall and winter until she is bred or her hormones make her stop. In short, a few less bucks will not impact the number of does impregnated but only the timing of when they are bred.

A highly skewed buck to doe ratio will result to lower fawn survival the following year because fawns born later in the year, closer to fall, are less likely to obtain the body weight needed to survive the winter. Mission accomplished?

2. “Sterilization was chosen because Staten Island’s herd is mostly growing through reproduction, not migration.” The assumption here is that “other deer” will not move in and add to the island’s current deer population. Also assuming, again, that they will have a significant impact on the number of breeding bucks in year one.

White-tailed deer do not technically migrate, so this statement is true. Yes, reproduction is responsible for population increases. Unfortunately, the deer found living on and off of Staten Island do not recognize the same arbitrary boundaries that we do. There is a 100 percent chance that bucks living near, but not on, Staten Island will move in and breed does living on Staten Island during subsequent breeding seasons.

It is an Island, but it’s not necessarily a closed population. Whitetail arrived by swimming over from New Jersey and they will continue to do so. They will come from other areas bordering the island, too. The news about sterilization will not stop them.

3. “A 2014 aerial survey found 763 deer in Staten Island’s green space, though some ecologists think there may be more than 1,000 here now.” It’s assumed that 763 deer was the number of the deer in the population in 2014, but that is really only the number that were observed, actually counted. There have also been two additional years of reproduction.

There are way deer more than you think. Aerial surveys for wildlife are designed to work by observers counting animals in a given area, say 1 square mile, then interpolating those numbers to additional, similar areas that were not surveyed, such as another 10 square miles. Observers, however, do not see all of the animals.

This is inherently true for just about any type of wildlife survey because it is completely possible to miss animals that are present in the environment. Deer can stay bedded down, simply be out of view and can avoid detection by moving away from observers. Surveys are critically important for managing wildlife populations, but most biologists acknowledge that surveys typically result in an estimate of the “minimum population size,” for the reasons outlined above.

Depending on the survey method used, the estimated population can be significantly lower than the actual population. This is especially true for aerial surveys, where a number of factors must be considered. If surveyors observed 763 deer in 2014 then the Staten Island deer population consists of least 1,500 animals now. In short, the scope of the work is much larger than they think.

4. “The biggest adult bucks that mate with the most does would be sterilized first, followed by smaller, younger and less popular males.” It’s assumed that older bucks do 90 percent of the breeding.

All age classes of bucks participate in the rut. Mature bucks do breed more does than younger bucks, but the score is closer than most think. Research has found that older bucks (3 1/2+ years old) will actually sire about 50-70 percent of the fawns, but the percentage of fawns sired by younger bucks actually increases as their proportion increases within a buck population. Sterilization will prevent treated bucks from participating in the rut, but that gap will be quickly filled by untreated bucks, regardless of age.

It should also be pointed out that older bucks are smart animals with experience on their side, so they will be much more difficult to capture and treat. Contractors need to capture 90+ percent of the buck population every year for sterilization to be effective in a closed population, so my recommendation would be to not pass on any bucks, regardless of age. But the Staten Island deer population is not closed.