Coming up over the hillside, you can't miss it. It emerges into sight, a shock of green against the brown of the meadow and the forest.
One of Ithaca College's "deer exclosures," the fenced-off space within the college's Natural Lands prevents deer from entering the exclosure. Its purpose is to show what the forest could look like if there weren't an overpopulation of deer on and around campus, said Jake Brenner, faculty manager of the Ithaca College Natural Lands.
"The results there are astounding. These exclosures are full of small, medium and increasingly large-sized plants and trees that would be growing everywhere else if not for the fact that they’re being clipped by the deer," Brenner said, adding that he hopes to install another, larger deer exclosure in the Natural Lands by August of 2018.
Brenner said the reason there are too many deer on campus is that the college does not allow hunting and does not use any other form of deer control on its property. He explained that the lack of deer management has significant consequences for the forest ecosystem in the Natural Lands.
"The problem is that there are so many deer that they’re overbrowsing young plants, primarily young perennials like trees," he said.
Courtney LaMere, the big game biologist in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's region seven — where Tompkins County is located — said the most efficient and cost effective way to control the deer population is through targeted hunting seasons.
However, LaMere said in populated areas like Ithaca and the college campuses within it, it becomes difficult to have a hunting season. This, she said, allows deer to live an extended life in these areas.
"If they’re savvy, if they look both ways before they cross the street, they can live a long time in those suburban habitats," LaMere said.
Brenner said while he believes that deer control is necessary for the forest in the college's Natural Lands to regain its health, he noted that it's unlikely the administration would ever agree to implement a program to shoot deer on campus because it would create safety concerns.
The forest in the Ithaca College Natural Lands.
However, shooting deer on a college campus isn't unprecedented. Across the hill at Cornell University, a deer population control program has been successfully implemented.
The Cornell deer management system centers around what the university describes as a "highly managed hunting program." Those who want to hunt deer at Cornell must pass an online test determining that they have read through and understood the rules and regulations of hunting on the university's property. And, according to Cornell's deer management program webpage, the university also takes the precaution of closing "selected Cornell near-campus lands and many Cornell Botanic Gardens Natural Areas with firearm deer hunting programs." No one involved with Cornell's deer management program responded to a request for comment on the program.
Brenner said the reason Cornell is so invested in controlling its deer population is that the university is the land grant institution of New York, which means it has an obligation to maintain a healthy environment on its campus. Ithaca College, on the other hand, has no such responsibility, Brenner explained.
"Its mission is to educate students," he said of Ithaca College. "So deer management doesn’t really fall under its banner."
One of the entrances to the Ithaca College Natural Lands.
Overall, Brenner said the barriers preventing the implementation of a deer management program at Ithaca College have caused him to put deer population control lower down on his list of priorities. Still, Brenner said he wishes there was more political will at the college to do something about deer overpopulation because of the toll the deer are taking on the ecosystem.
"I look across the forest floor and I see nothing green all year long," he said.