[Update, Feb. 3, 2022: This article originally contained a quote by Marcy Schwartz, president of Save Our Deer (SOD), claiming that the College needed and did not have a noise ordinance permit to fire rifles within town bounds. This statement, however, is factually inaccurate. The deer management program does not require a noise permit, nor any other permit from the Town, and the program operates within the boundaries of the standing Town noise ordinance. A story in the Feb. 3 issue of The Miscellany News quoted the president of SOD falsely claiming otherwise.]
Over winter break, the College conducted a mass killing, or culling, of deer on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) between Dec. 18 and Jan. 18. The periodic cullings have sparked controversy over their ethics and practicality for the campus, with students and community members asserting that they are unnecessary given the deer population is not an ecological threat. Others, however, maintain that the cullings are essential to the ecological health of the campus and to the safety of Poughkeepsie community members.
This is not the first time that the College has conducted a deer culling at the VFEP. The first one was carried out in 2010, with subsequent cullings in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2020. In every case, the College hired a team of professional sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to perform them.
The College’s deer management plan incited some protests from Vassar students who questioned the ethics of the deer culling practice. Back in 2017, members of the then-active Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) spoke out against the killing taking place that year and called on the College to find more humane alternatives.
These previous killings also prompted the creation of Save Our Deer (SOD), an organization of Poughkeepsie residents advocating against the College’s culling practices. According to SOD, Vassar classifies the VFEP as a forest to justify deer culling and maintains that the deer population exceeds these numbers. SOD points out that the VFEP is not a forest in its entirety, meaning that the optimal number of deer is actually higher. Another objection is the killing method, which is deemed to be inhumane: baiting deer, they contend, is an illegal hunting practice in New York State.
Deer cullings are not just a Vassar occurrence—other areas, such as Syracuse, Fayetteville, Ithaca and Fire Island, have also used sharpshooting over bait as a method of deer management. This method, as Vassar’s website states, is usually seen as the safest method of managing deer within urban areas. Vassar is also not the only school that has a deer management program. Other schools that have implemented them include Swarthmore College, Binghamton University, Yale University, Harvard University and Cornell University.
Several of the claims made by SOD were refuted by Dean Marianne Begemann in an e-mail correspondence with The Miscellany News. When asked about the forest classification, she responded, “The mission of the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve is to protect and preserve the ecological diversity of the land,” she said when asked about the forest classification. “To succeed in our mission a variety of habitats, including forests, are managed on the site.”
Begemann said that analyses had shown that deer were overpopulating the VFEP: “Infrared flyover data shows that the density of deer at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve exceeds the density that is considered the maximum allowable for forest regeneration to occur. Also, direct observation of the impact of deer on the landscape using a paired plot method is evidence of the negative impact that deer overbrowsing is having on the site.”
SOD president Marcy Schwartz spoke to The Miscellany News about the organization, which was newly galvanized by a surge in killings over the College’s most recent winter break. She spoke about the beginnings of her activism. “In late 2009, the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a story that Vassar College would be shooting deer at Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve in January 2010, because of ‘deer overpopulation,’” recounted Schwartz. “My first reaction was ‘Who the hell is Vassar College?’ It made no sense that a private school could be empowered to mass-kill wildlife that is a public resource and belongs to us all.”
The College has stated that deer overpopulation causes long-term ecological damage, as well as damage to the surrounding neighborhoods. The College’s website reads, “The overpopulation of deer is dramatically altering the entire forest structure of the VFEP…Due to the deer’s intensive winter browse, forest regeneration is hindered and the future of balanced plant communities at the VFEP is placed at great risk.”
Additionally, the College’s website states that the overpopulation of deer not only impacts the ecological life on the Farm but also has implications on the local Poughkeepsie community: “High densities of deer are correlated to higher incidence of tick borne diseases. Collisions between cars and deer cause property damage and personal injury.”
Schwartz has contested claims of deer overpopulation. “We were able to obtain a 15-page memorandum recommending the kill to President [Catharine Bond] Hill from the Vassar Farm Oversight Committee,” she recalled. According to her, the memorandum did not contain evidence to support deer overpopulation on the VFEP.
She said the killings, in addition to their inhumanity, pose a risk to nearby residents, since rifle bullets can travel up to two miles generally and the farm is only 1.5 miles wide. This has served as an important angle from which she has opposed the killings.
“SOD is now retrenching to consider the most effective way to stop Vassar’s
onslaught on our local wildlife, which in fact interferes in nature in the saddest way,” said Schwartz of continuing efforts against the killings. “We will continue to fight Vassar’s irrational deadly attacks on nature on various fronts. We will continue our demonstrations, during which we will also hand out information on the kills, and for which we seek media coverage. We will consider further legal action.”
When asked what evidence SOD could provide for the College to end its deer culling practice, Begemann replied, “The College will continue to monitor the number of deer and their impact on the landscape annually, and manage the deer population accordingly with the approval of the Department of Environmental Conservation.”
Additional reporting by Jacques Abou-Rizk and Annabelle Wang.