By NATE CODERRE
At this point in the semester, Cornellians have seen quite a few deer—grazing in their backyards, scampering across the Arts quad, wandering around the plantations. Cornell boasts an incredible amount of wildlife, in no small part due to the work of activists who look after local animal populations. Ithaca is so blessed with picturesque natural areas, that one can almost forget the history of our society’s failure to responsibly preserve natural beauty and care for its wildlife.
I think the Cornell bubble is part of the reason why a recent article in The Guardian surprised me so much. Its headline reads, “Wild Beavers seen in England for the first time in centuries.” The noble beaver has returned to England! Praise Aslan! Wait, where have the beavers been this whole time?
Apparently, wild European beavers used to be quite prevalent in England, but the beavers in Britain and Wales, killed for their fur and meat, were hunted into extinction in the 16th century. The United Kingdom had already begun carefully reintroducing beaver families into specific natural reserves around the countryside, but officials were incredibly surprised by the appearance of these beavers. Experts believe that a family may have been living along the riverbank in Devon for a while now, and they are convinced that this development bodes well for the viability of future beaver populations.
So if the Great Lion isn’t coming back, why is this so interesting to me? Perhaps it’s merely because this endangered species seems so much less exotic than the ones I normally hear about. It’s all too easy to mentally distance myself from the impending extinction of certain types of tigers in Indonesia or pandas in China, but beavers are animals that I have enjoyed encountering in the wild, and it’s strange to imagine this happening in the Northeastern United States.
The even stranger part? It did. Or it nearly did anyway. The European trappers who helped settle the U.S. knew just as little about wildlife management as the English and almost completely eliminated the North American beaver from large areas of New England. Fortunately, beavers have a much larger contiguous environment in the U.S. than they do in England. There remained a large enough population to restock the beaver population of New Hampshire in a 30-year period between the twenties and fifties.
Undoubtedly, countries in the Western tradition have had a history of irresponsible hunting. The word “conservation” came into common modern usage towards the end of the 19th century, when a British NGO, the Society for the Protection of Birds, was formed. The influence of conservationist groups increased fairly rapidly from there. Their major argument was that the beauty of the countryside’s natural landscapes needed to be protected from the rapidly growing industrial society. National government action didn’t really begin in Britain until after World War II, but Parliament then passed major conservation acts in 1949, 1968, and 1981. They essentially designated certain areas as wildlife trusts, and created a government body to monitor the strength of the animal population. They also strengthened the authority of hunting licenses, limiting the majority of hunting to certain seasons.
19th and 20th century British environmental reform movements still sound pretty far removed from modern American life. The Society for the Protection of Birds was founded by a group of wealthy old men whose presiding interest, maintaining the beauty of the countryside, really only mattered to those wealthy enough to have significant leisure time. Many conservation programs focus on ideals not immediately imperative to the general public. The lives of beavers are not as apparently important as the fight against global warning. While unfortunate, many people can reasonably observe that beavers are not necessarily vital to the continuation of British society.
Surprisingly, an even more ethically questionable conservation battle is playing out in Ithaca over the relatively large deer population. The Cayuga Heights Trustees passed the Deer Management Focus Area (DMFA) program in 2012 due to concerns about the rising deer population. The program allows outside contractors to annually trap and kill massive amounts of deer under the cover of darkness, in a vast area that includes many residential neighborhoods. I was certainly shocked by this idea, having seen so many of these deer myself without ever hearing of this program. The pro-hunting argument centers primarily around three issues: the risk of increased Lyme disease, car accidents, and damage to the environment. Local officials have ignored widespread local opposition to push this program through. James LaVeck, cofounder of Cayugadeer.org, has helped publically debunk a lot of the arguments by approaching wildlife experts to comment on Cayuga’s deer issue. The experts universally condemned the Lyme disease argument. For example, Tamara Awerbach of the Harvard School of Public Health, states explicitly that “there is no linear correlation between killing deer and the tick population” and is appalled by the lack of scientific basis the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) uses in its arguments. Additionally, there is no evidence that more deer have collided with vehicles over the past 15 years. In fact, there is some evidence in insurance reports that the number of collisions actually increases during hunting seasons, likely due to the increased number of startled deer. Most of the biodiversity issues are so complicated that experts seem divided on exactly how much the deer population hurts or helps other species of wildlife, but there are plenty of experts who argue that the presence of deer actually helps. Many bait-and-shoot enthusiasts claim that deer are hurting bird populations, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has never found evidence to support that claim.
It would be impossible to develop a full-length argument for the value of animals in this space. However, I think it safe to say that most people believe that animals have some degree of inherent dignity. While the vast majority of them would not advocate the abolition of hunting, many people, I believe, would intuitively question the ethics of the authorities’ violent (and potentially unnecessary) methods of cutting into the deer population, and should feel remorseful about the elimination of a species (even if they survive in other areas of the world). Conservation issues such as this have entirely too many complexities and ambiguities for our society to settle on immediate solutions, so the best we can do to remain informed. I spent two years at this school without developing any sort of serious curiosity about our wildlife, and I missed out on important context. There are already a lot of local residents who are actively fighting against these deer control practices, but I’d encourage even more to investigate the issues further and participate in the discussion as best as they can.