Out of the wild
Deer are invading New York City, and we don't know how to stop them
By Brendan O'Connor
Just before Christmas of last year, John Caminiti, who lives in Staten Island, New York City’s least populated borough, watched traffic come to a standstill outside the Staten Island Mall. "It got quiet all of a sudden," Caminiti told me. "I look around, and there was a big buck, standing right on the fringe of the wilderness and the mall. A calm came over people."
Staten Island is located a half-hour by ferry off the southern tip of Manhattan, and the Caminitis have lived here for almost a century. "My grandmother was a baby when my great-grandfather brought her over here," he said. At that time, the island had practically no deer. Then the island had a few deer. Now there are a lot of deer, and they are everywhere.
Nobody really knows where the herds came from. The Staten Island Advance reported sightings as far back as 1991; according to The New York Times, deer began appearing "with some frequency" around 2000.
In 2008, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a survey of Staten Island’s deer population. The biologist who searched the woods estimated there were approximately 24 white-tailed deer in the borough. Last winter, the New York City Parks Department conducted an aerial, infrared survey of the island and found 793 individuals — an apparent 3,304 percent increase in just six years.
an apparent 3,304 percent increase in the deer population in just six years
Deer on the island have gone from a rarity to a delight to a problem with no immediate solution. "I never saw a deer until I went away to college," Sam Immo, a 23-year-old Staten Island native, told me. "When my friends and I were learning to drive, driving at night was a non-issue," she said. "The first time I almost hit a deer, I was flabbergasted."
The consequences of white-tailed deer overabundance extend beyond trampled gardens, the spread of tick-borne disease, or even car collisions. (The Department of Sanitation had a contractor remove 34 "large dead deer" from Staten Island’s roads in 2013.) Too many deer will ruin an ecosystem for years to come, leaving forests barren; eventually, the deer’s insatiable appetite will lead to its own starvation. While Staten Island, New York City’s greenest borough, hasn’t quite reached that point, without management efforts in place, the island will get there soon enough. Under favorable conditions, deer populations can double every two to three years. Staten Island — an area just shy of 60 square miles — might expect its deer population to reach 3,000 by 2017.
It’s a pattern that has unfolded across the American Northeast and Midwest over the past 30 years. White-tailed deer — once on the brink of extirpation in the United States — find refuge in the parks, backyards, and golf courses of suburban and exurban America. Humans are largely at fault: the way we develop things, with our fondness for cultivated, abrupt treelines, wide-open soccer fields, and the absence of hunters and predators are ideal for deer. As far as they are concerned, Staten Island — best views of the Manhattan skyline in the tri-state metropolitan area! — is as nice a place to live as any. Unmanaged, however, the population will become an increasingly expensive problem, with any semblance of balance difficult to restore. That one of New York City’s five boroughs will soon be overrun with hundred-pound pests (some with horns), at this point, seems inevitable.
Three times larger than Manhattan, Staten Island is home to less than a third as many people — just over 472,000, according to the last census. The island is densely built up at its hilly northeastern end, where commuters board ferries bound for downtown New York City, a few miles away. But away from the city, sloping southwest towards New Jersey and southeast towards the Atlantic, the island becomes increasingly depopulated — a landscape of gutted factories, empty prisons, and parks. "Nothing down here but the deer," John Caminiti told me as we drove in his car. Caminiti and his friends feed the deer at Staten Island’s Charleston Cemetery. Sometimes, he said, they eat out of his hand.
Charleston Cemetery sits along the side of Arthur Kill Road at the southern end of Staten Island — just about as far from Manhattan you can get while still remaining within the confines of the five boroughs. Staten Island has some of the oldest cemeteries in New York state — legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell even wrote a story about them. "The South Shore is the most rural part of the island," he wrote in 1956, "and all these cemeteries are bordered on at least two sides by woods." Today those woods and cemeteries are full of deer: during my visit at Charleston, a small fawn scampered toward a doe at the sight of me.
Arthur Kill Road swings out and around the bottom of the island to the water of the Arthur Kill — a tidal strait separating Staten Island from New Jersey. ("Kill" being a Dutch word for a stream or a creek or other such flowing body of water.) Many suspect that this is ground zero for the island’s exploding deer population: deer have been videotaped swimming across the Arthur Kill toward Staten Island from New Jersey towns like Rahway, Carteret, and Perth Amboy — places where sprawling industrial campuses, many abandoned, sit adjacent to marshes, forests, and swamps.
About a half-mile south of the giant mound of the Freshkills landfill, the coast is littered with scuttled ships, earning it the name Staten Island Ship Graveyard. At low tide, I walked across the flats — scattered oysters sticking up out of the mud, rusting hulls sticking up out of the water a little further out — to a heavily wooded peninsula that sticks out towards Jersey. The trek was not very rigorous, but it smelled bad. I saw no deer, but I saw deer shit. A lot of deer shit.
Mike Feller, the recently retired chief naturalist for the Parks Department, told me that a large part of his mission as a nature advocate is to foster connections between green spaces that would otherwise be fragmented — or, as he put it, "ameliorating island biogeography." The Arthur Kills area is a good illustration, Feller said, of that project finding success: "a glorious, contiguous system of forests, marshes, and edges." This is exactly the kind of habitat that white-tailed deer enjoy. According to Caminiti, a deer (or a person) would be able to travel from the northernmost tip of the island to the southernmost without crossing more than four or five roads.
"Trying to make things more connected has a lot of benefits, but also a lot of liabilities. You can’t filter out the species you may not want," Feller told me. "Before, maybe there were outliers, stragglers, but no herds," he said. (A New York Times article from 1953 tells the story of a Staten Island farmer being gored by one such buck.) "There was a time it seemed like the deer just showed up."
After leaving Arthur Kill, I drove back to the cemetery in hopes of catching one more glimpse of a deer before the sunset. Sure enough, there she was, a doe, staring me down from between the mossy headstones. And then she turned, bounding away unhurriedly into the dim evening woods.
White-tailed deer are not particularly large animals, but they are muscular and athletic, some reportedly able to jump over fences 10 feet high. The tails from which they derive their name stick up jauntily over their rears as they run away from you.
Before European colonization, North America was home to somewhere between 24 and 33 million white-tailed deer, most widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains. In the following centuries, that population was destroyed — first by traders operating out of coastal cities, making deals with Native Americans for pelts; then by settlers moving out West. Deer died by the hundreds of thousands as the market grew for their meat and hides.
But it was the the second half of the 19th century that truly decimated animal populations across the United States. In his book Nature Wars, wildlife historian, journalist, and hunter Jim Sterba writes, "All wildlife suffered, from bison to songbirds. Demand for wild products soared as immigrants poured in and the US population grew to 76 million. Any wild species with any value was killed for meat, fur, or feathers."
The white-tailed population plummeted to an estimated low of 350,000 animals in 1890. According to Serba, "by the end of the 19th century white-tailed deer were so scarce that market hunters no longer bothered with them."
"By the end of the 19th century white-tailed deer were so scarce that market hunters no longer bothered with them."
Then, thanks to a set of concepts and policies referred to as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the deer made a tremendous comeback. The model, encouraged by a rising American bourgeoisie that yearned for recreational hunting, established a series of principles to promote rebounding deer populations: create protected green spaces where commercial hunting was banned; foster safe and abundant spaces for regulated, recreational hunting; and further discourage predator species that had essentially already been eradicated. The logic was simple: you can’t hunt the deer if all the deer are already dead.
As a result, the United States now has over 30 million white-tailed deer, much more densely populated than they ever were before Europeans arrived. Unchecked by wolves, cougars, and bears, the herds wreak havoc: a 2012 Rutgers University study alleges that white-tailed deer are responsible for most of the $4.5 billion worth of crops that US agriculture loses to wildlife annually; they account for three to four thousand car collisions a day. New Jersey alone had 31,192 deer collisions from 2011 to 2012. Unchecked by predators or hunters, only starvation will limit population growth.
To bring a native species back from the brink of eradication should be cause for celebration — in this respect, the revival of white-tailed deer is one of the conservation movement’s finest accomplishments. But our understanding of what is best for the deer, for people, and for the wider ecosystem is, perhaps, changing. And success is starting to resemble failure.
To combat Staten Island’s deer, New York City has pulled together 22 people into a newly organized NYC Interagency Deer Management Task Force. Representatives from the Environmental Conservation are present, but so are employees of the Department of Transportation, Sanitation, Emergency Management, NYPD, USDA, and others. The task force, chaired by the Parks Department’s director of conservation Kevin Heatley, had its first official meeting this past December. There, the team came to two conclusions: The deer are a problem. The city needs to do something about the deer.
"It’s not the number of deer, it’s the density," Heatley told me. At 41 deer per square mile of Staten Island, he said, "The numbers are four times as high as we’d like them to be." The task force will aim to lower that density to fewer than 15 animals per square mile. But no one can agree on when this will happen, or how.
The task force has three priorities: monitor the animals and their impact; educate the public about deer behavior; and manage the population. It is this last goal that’s the most difficult and controversial. Communities like Staten Island — largely developed, if not entirely urban, with plenty of green space — have essentially four primary management methods available to them: two lethal and two non-lethal. Lethal methods include regulated culls (i.e. hiring government sharpshooters) and recreational hunting. Non-lethal methods include the application of a contraceptive and surgical sterilization. The fifth option — which isn’t really an option but rather the current state of affairs — is to do nothing at all.
"Pursuing, shooting, killing, or capturing" as well as "disturbing, harrying, or worrying" wildlife is prohibited in all five boroughs of New York City and carries a penalty of a year in jail, a $2,000 fine, or both. That hasn’t stopped some: In 2007, The New York Times reported hunters roaming Staten Island’s Clay Pit Pond State Park.
"To just come up and start killing them seems cruel. They’re innocent — they don’t know."
Margherita Grancio-Rubertone lives near Freshkills Park, across the street from a cemetery where a deer was once found impaled on the fence (the victim of an unfortunate jumping accident). "It’s not a good idea, hunting," she told me. "To just come up and start killing them seems cruel. They’re innocent — they don’t know." The relative density of Staten Island would also make hunting difficult, or at least uncomfortable. "It would be pretty dangerous, with the deer right across from your house," Grancio-Rubertone said. "God forbid, whatever might happen."
In February of 2013, a Staten Island Advance reporter asked Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, a former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who hunts deer in upstate New York, what he made of the growing deer sightings on Staten Island. Lhota was in town to pick up an assemblyman’s endorsement. "The next mayor is going to have to figure out how hunting is going to work," Lhota said, adding that if hunting were to be permitted on the island, it would have to be bowhunting. "Not everybody believes in hunting," Lhota said. "So we need to have a public debate." Lhota later denied making the comments; the Advance reporter stuck by his story, and the paper ended up running an editorial condemning the idea of allowing hunting in the borough anyway.
The task force does not consider hunting to be a viable option for Staten Island, and just as well — recreational hunting on its own has been found to be an insufficient means of population control. One study even found that bowhunters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who were permitted unlimited tags, could shoot deer over bait, and were working during extended seasons still could not reduce the size of deer herds to sustainable levels.
One of the study’s co-authors was Anthony DeNicola, founder of a non-profit called White Buffalo, which provides wildlife control services using lethal and nonlethal methods. DeNicola’s doctoral dissertation at Purdue University was on deer contraceptives; he claims to have killed more than 10,000 deer since he founded White Buffalo in 1995. "People have a hard time accepting ‘responsibility’ for taking an animal’s life, but at what cost to the animal’s quality of life?" he asked when we spoke. Communities hire White Buffalo to manage their wildlife when that wildlife has run amok.
DeNicola is not optimistic that the residents of Staten Island or legislators in a city like New York are going to accept widespread lethal deer culls. "When you’re dealing with people who live in the New York metropolitan area, they have no day-to-day exposure to nature, to living with nature. The idea of killing animals like deer has a very visceral impact," DeNicola said. "Given the degree of urbanization, your ability to educate, to sway public perception becomes very hard — to get people to understand the need to cull? Good luck. Ideally, you’d pursue an integrated solution" — a mix of lethal and non-lethal methods. "Practically? Not. Gonna. Happen."
White Buffalo has experimented with surgical sterilization, which DeNicola believes will play a greater role in deer management as time goes on. "Most locations that have deer problems have firearm restrictions," he observed. "The data keep reinforcing that sterilization may have some utility." But labor-intensive sterilization is an expensive proposition: you have to catch the deer, and you need someone who is competent in the surgical sterilization process available to perform the act — the bill comes out to around $1,000 per doe.
"Tony’s been doing a lot of the surgical sterilization work, and he has a great team to do that," Allen Rutberg, director of Tufts University’s Center for Animals and Public Policy, told me. "I just don’t think that his team can be replicated in an efficient manner."
Rutberg is researching a different non-lethal method of deer management: immunocontraception, or birth control. Last year, he and his team began an experiment with this method in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson, just north of New York City in Westchester County. Hastings, a two-square-mile area, is estimated to be home to around 120 deer; there were 16 car collisions involving deer here in 2011, and the mayor, his wife, and their child all contracted deer-borne Lyme disease. Rutberg’s method involves tranquilizing, tagging, and applying the vaccine to each deer once every two years; similar experiments on Fire Island reduced deer populations in some areas by as much as 50 percent. Rutberg’s contraceptive method costs around $500 per deer, though he argues that if government regulations requiring him to tag each deer were lifted, he could bring that cost down to $100.
One of the things we like about the sort of contraception that we do is that it seems to be a sort of comfortable, consensus solution," Rutberg said. "It doesn’t involve killing anything, it’s not too invasive, we don’t have to do surgery on the animals, but at the same time it keeps the problem under control. It seems like a nice compromise between treating them as pests and treating them as pets and treating them as nature’s gift."
But building a consensus in any community can be a laborious process, especially in a place with as many stakeholders and interest groups as New York City. "A consensus-based approach is never going to work on a controversial issue," DeNicola told me. "You can try educating, but in the time it takes to do that you’ll have deer up to your eyeballs."
The best case scenario for Staten Island, he said, is that five years from now a management method will be agreed on. "Meanwhile, the forest is denuded, Lyme disease spreads, and collisions increase," he said. "The deer are happy!" But as for the city? "They are well on their way to a major headache."
Heatley, the head of the NYC Interagency Deer Management Task Force, shares DeNicola’s concern — whatever method the city decides on, time is of the essence if Staten Island is going to solve its deer problem. "When your house is on fire, you go get a bucket. You don’t measure the temperature of the flames," he told me. "The deer situation is a wildfire."
Deer aren’t the only animals adapting and flourishing in the landscapes we’ve created: in 1974, only 325 pairs of peregrine falcons were left in all of North America. Today they thrive in cities, whose skylines imitate the falcon’s ancestral habitats along cliffs and canyons: the New York State DEC reports that peregrine falcons nest on every bridge over the Hudson River south of Albany. The world’s largest urban bat colony numbering around 1.5 million — is located underneath downtown Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge. A wolf-coyote hybrid is spreading through the Northeast from above the Great Lakes, via the Appalachians — its size and weight making it a more fearsome predator than its pure-coyote predecessors. Some 2,000 coyotes have moved from the suburbs around Chicago into the city’s downtown, and coyotes from Westchester County — just north of Manhattan — have made it as far south as TriBeCa. Just a few days ago, one was caught on the Upper West Side.
The distinction between nature and civilization has always been a delusional abstraction at best, and a justification for the exploitation of natural resources at worst. We are, at all times, amongst nature, and it is amongst us whether we see it or not. And now the deer, the coyotes, and others are coming back to remind us of the fact.
"Humans have forgotten that they have a role in nature," the Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Thomas Rawinski told me. "We have to take responsibility for the problem, we have to look at ourselves as part of this ecosystem." Human beings shattered the landscape of this continent, only to decide that we preferred it the other way. But putting the puzzle back together is proving to be harder than we imagined.
On Staten Island, that shattered landscape isn’t just made up of deer: the island is also struggling with a flock of wild turkeys. For the past 15 years, the birds have made the campus of the South Beach Psychiatric Center their home. It all started with nine captive-bred birds that were released onto hospital grounds in 2000. Since then, the flock has grown. Meanwhile, the turkey’s fecal matter is tracked into the hospital buildings, Ben Rosen, a spokesperson for the Office of Mental Health, told me. The birds are obstructing emergency vehicles making their way in and out of the hospital.
In August 2013, several turkeys were captured by hand and with nets, placed into crates, and shipped to a "state-approved processing facility," according to a statement given at the time by a USDA spokesperson to the Staten Island Advance. Their meat was to be frozen and its suitability for human consumption tested.
But the cull sparked a public outrage and was officially halted in September; an estimated 45 turkeys remained on the psych ward grounds. The DEC made accommodations for 28 of the birds to be transported to an enclosed space at the Catskill Environmental Sanctuary instead. The USDA, which is now handling the relocation process, is employing several different capture methodologies — pre-baited walk-in traps, weighted nets that are launched over turkeys by air cannons, and hand nets — over short periods of time to prevent the turkeys from catching on and finding other places to roost.
It’s taken New York City 15 years to address the chaos caused by nine turkeys. One shudders to think how long it will take the city to tackle a population of 800 furiously procreating deer.
DeNicola laughed when I told him about the island’s turkey troubles. Getting rid of turkeys is easy, he scoffed. Deer are another case altogether. "You’re not gonna relocate deer," he told me with a smirk in his voice. "You’re stuck with the deer. You handle them there."
Correction: The territory of Staten Island encompasses less than 60 square miles, not 100. That makes it the third largest borough in New York City.