Protecting the Crum Woods, Humanely

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

To the Editor:

We write in response to Ethan Bogdan’s editorial about the deer cull planned for the Crum Woods. There are several points raised within his piece that require either clarification or correction.

First, a bit of background on how this decision was reached. Swarthmore College has been studying the long term effects of an overabundance of deer since 2001 when it commissioned Natural Lands Trust and Continental Conservation to prepare a Conservation and Stewardship Plan to secure the long-term viability of the woods and identify any potential risks or hazards. That report, published in 2003, concluded that the effect of overpopulation of deer in the woods was “profound.” Further research done by Natural Resource Consultants Inc. (NRC Inc.) and an aerial infrared deer count supported the conclusion that managing the deer population was a priority for maintaining a healthy ecosystem in Crum Woods.

At present, excessive deer browsing is severely limiting the ability of the forest to regenerate naturally and is altering the structure and composition of the forest. For example, deer are consuming nearly all of the native oak saplings. As old oak trees age and die, there are fewer and fewer younger trees left to grow and fill in the canopy, and as a result the available habitat for other animals is diminishing. Non-native plant species that are not part of the natural deer diet are replacing the native species in the woods.

The Crum Woods Stewardship Committee (CWSC) set out to understand how best to reduce the deer population to a sustainable size in a safe, science-based, and socially responsible manner. The committee members gave careful consideration to many options, including taking no action, mitigation techniques, predator restoration, trap and transfer, contraception, trap and euthanize, recreational hunting, sharp shooting, and/or a combination of these tactics. The CWSC hosted several public forums throughout its deliberative process in order to keep the community informed of its findings and to listen to community feedback.

It was only after careful study of the woods, consideration of a wide range of deer population management options, and engagement with the community on this issue that the CWSC came to its recommendation to proceed with a cull.

Immunocontraception, as Ethan proposed, is a tool that we will reconsider once it is approved by the EPA, is commercially available and has been tested in open environments like the Crum Woods. At present, GonaCon is not commercially available and we do not have a clear and dependable timeline of when it will become available. Promises that practical nonlethal solutions are on the near horizon have been forthcoming since the mid-1970s, and statements that GonaCon will be commercially available in the imminent future began early in 2006. We are now approaching 2009 and simply cannot wait any longer.

Even if GonaCon were available right now there is a lack of experimental data supporting GonaCon’s efficacy in an environment such as Crum Woods. Many of the current testing grounds are islands or enclosed areas, not representative of the free-ranging deer populations such as those inhabiting the Crum Woods. It is also worth noting that a typical deer life span in the wild is 18 years, and thus contraceptive methods would at best only result in a very slow decline in the population, perhaps requiring a decade to have a noticeable impact.

While the Crum Woods may be in better health than other areas with overabundant deer populations, that does not mean that the Crum Woods is “not yet in a critical condition” as Ethan’s editorial suggested. The longer the forest is impacted by overabundant deer the more significant will be the negative consequences and uncertainty regarding potential for recovery. At present we are unable to secure land management grants for the Crum Woods because of the threats imposed by an overabundant deer population. We are also unable to replant native plant species in the quantities necessary because of the number of deer.

Regarding the arguments against the use of a sharpshooter, it is first important to note that the College intends to contract an expert for this purpose. We must also clarify that adult female deer will not be the only target. The sharpshoot will target all the deer within a group in order to prevent learned behavior by any particular segment of the deer population.

Fawns will be six months old or older when the cull is planned to take place and they will no longer be dependent on the doe. These animals will be indistinguishable from adults for most people and will be old enough to breed. There is little objective science to support the conclusion that fawns experience emotional or physical suffering as a result of being separated from the doe at this age. In fact, they are driven off by the doe in the spring as the dame prepares to give birth to new offspring.

In environments with intense competition for food a sudden drop in population (as would occur after a cull) will sometimes result in a phenomenon known as “reproductive rebound.” Science has shown that reproductive rebound—wherein fawns breed at younger ages and there is an increased occurrence of multiple births—is unlikely to occur in the Crum Woods setting. The number of fawns born into a herd each year is influenced by a number of factors, the most important being nutrition. Deer in the Crum Woods are well nourished, due to the ready availability of ornamental plantings, fertilizer, lime, mown lawns and bird feeders in the surrounding area. Furthermore, the management program outlined for the College calls for on-going population monitoring and control, which for the foreseeable future will include the annual removal of deer to maintain a healthy population.

The College remains open to considering alternative methods for balancing deer impacts with the interests of the other plants and animals that make up the forest as new options become available. At present we have determined that a cull conducted by an expert sharpshooter is the only option that meets our goals to reduce the deer population to a sustainable size in a humane, forest-science-based and socially responsible manner, in our open boundary woodland setting.

Jeff Jabco and Colin Purrington
Co-Chairs of the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee


  1. There is nothing "fantastic" about this editorial, and I don't just say that because I disagree with its arguments. The majority of what Mr. Jabco and Mr. Purrington have posted here is no more than a repetition of things that the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee has already been saying to the public for some time now. The editorial itself claims that the CWSC has made an effort to "keep the community informed of its findings and to listen to community feedback;" why, then, insult us by telling us everything twice?

    As for the comments that have been added to provide the appearance of actually responding to my editorial:

    •We still have no proof that the Crum Woods are in immediate danger. "The longer the forest is impacted by overabundant deer the more significant will be the negative consequences and uncertainty regarding potential for recovery" is practically a truism, and the lack of objective data makes it clear that the committee cannot support its claims of urgency, an urgency so great that it justifies killing.

    The Natural Lands Trust report states, "Although there is regeneration above browse height in most canopy gaps of a few species less preferred by deer, the number of seedlings is barely adequate to fill each gap…" There is thus some reason to be concerned, but it isn't at all clear that the canopy is diminishing yet, nor that this is resulting in a reduction of habitat space. The opening of the aforementioned gaps, which currently have sufficient regeneration, would require multiple mature trees to die within the next few years, an occurrence I would think unlikely to happen given arboreal longevity. Furthermore, studies have shown that opening the canopy, (if this were to happen), can actually contribute to the health of the forest by increasing the amount of light that reaches the lower stories.

    • Jabco and Purrington claim that reproductive rebound would not apply to the Crum Woods because of the ample food sources already available to the deer. What they fail to realize is that the cull is scheduled to take place in mid-to-late December, right at the beginning of the winter. Snowfall and plant death alone make food scarce for any species during this time of year, and the cold temperatures increase the amount of energy a deer, as warm-blooded animals who do not hibernate, need to burn just to stay alive. With the deer population severely reduced going into this season, there will be more food available to the remaining deer, and there will consequently be a higher chance of twinning of even giving birth to triplets in the following spring.

    For more info about the tolls that winter can take on deer, check out this recent article:

    • The editorial also claims that there "is little objective science to support the conclusion that fawns experience emotional or physical suffering as a result of being separated from the doe at this age." While it may be admittedly hard to assess emotional suffering objectively, there is sufficient evidence that deer live in matrilineal groups and form social hierarchies which hunting disrupts.

    "In addition to such general effects on behaviour, lack of selectivity in the cull, or selection of the wrong age—or sex—classes, may also exacerbate the pest problem by disrupting the social structure and social organisation of the pest. This may have two consequences: a further increase in population density, and an increase in damage caused because the animals display abnormal behaviour in response to a distorted social structure."

    From Rory Putman, The Natural History of Deer, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.,1989, p172.
    Published in the US as part of The Natural History of Mammals and in the UK as the Christopher Helm Mammal Series, edited by Dr. Ernest Neal, MBE, former President of the Mammal Society.

    As for "lack of selectivity," well, we know that will be the case because we have just been told that the "sharpshoot will target all the deer within a group in order to prevent learned behavior by any particular segment of the deer population." The hired sharpshooter will kill whatever deer he sees at a given bait site, so long as he can kill all of them. It doesn't even matter to the College that killing bucks and fawns will only increase the size of the next generation…

    • Finally, on the subject of GonaCon: I decide to argue for this immunocontraceptive vaccine because it sounded especially promising, but, if the CWSC feels a need for more data and is too impatient to wait, then it can always go with the Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) vaccine instead. PZP has been used to manage deer (not just for research purposes) since 1993. It has been proven to reduce free-ranging populations of white-tailed deer in multiple locations, not to mention free-ranging African elephants and over 100 other species.

    Do not let the CWSC tell you that applying PZP in the Crum Woods would be impractical or expensive. While I do not have sufficient time now to outline how PZP can be administered entirely remotely and at lower costs per deer than those charged by professional sharpshooters, I assure you that this is all possible, and I may write more on this subject if I get the chance.

    I support open discourse and even representation, but the Stewardship Committee has had ample time to diffuse this information already, and, while I may well be wrong, I have the sense that they're just trying to have the last word at this point. I'm not so deluded as to think that I'll have the last word, either, but I'd at least prefer that that distinction go to a tenacious debater like Argos…

  2. Thanks for that, Ethan, but I'm perfectly content with giving the last word to the Stewardship Committee. They are far more qualified than myself to make these kinds of assessments.

  3. Ethan, admit it: You are ranting against the words of two people vastly more qualified than you. Their claims are supported by both first-hand experience and personal research. Try to avoid resorting to ad hominem attacks such as "why, then, insult us by telling us everything twice?". If you value the lives of deer so much that you can't accept Jeff and Colin's arguments, at least acknowledge that and argue the facts.

  4. I still can't believe that this has raised such a stink. Thank you Colin and Jeff for putting this spec in his place.

  5. Not that I particularly think that this somewhat absurd argument should continue, but I just have to say this: I think that deer would much rather be dead than infertile. They aren't people, they don't have hopes and dreams and feelings beyond making babies. Immunocontraception and death are equivalent to the deer. Let's just shoot them and be done with this. (Frankly, with all the poverty and hunger and genocide and global warming and amphibian death, are we really freaking out about deer that anywhere else would be hunted for sport?)

  6. "they don't have hopes and dreams and feelings beyond making babies. "

    have you talked to them about this? how are you so certain?

  7. Myles,

    Of course I don't deny that the co-chairs of the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee are, in general, much more knowledgeable and experienced than I, but that shouldn't stop me from questioning their arguments. If they themselves were experts on deer management, I doubt that the Committee would have commissioned Natural Resource Consultants, (in whom my faith is not particularly high), to tell them what to do.

    Moreover, human values and morality play a significant role in this decision, and neither of these things depend on age or professional experience. My personal convictions have led me to research, explore, and consider this issue in ways that others have not, and I think that the information and logic that I have uncovered as a result make a strong case.

    I do not see how the quote that you have cited is an example of an ad hominem attack. My point, while perhaps an overstatement, was that the opening paragraphs of this editorial imply that anyone who objects to the deer cull must not have read the Committee's official statement closely enough. This is a comment on the tone of the editorial and not an insult to the people who wrote it.

  8. "My personal convictions have led me to research, explore, and consider this issue in ways that others have not, and I think that the information and logic that I have uncovered as a result make a strong case."

    Thats the best laugh I've had in a while, thanks Ethan. I am sure that nonlethal strategies were never thought of or fairly discussed before you raised your concerns and gave us your "research," if that is what you call 10 minutes of googling around (but to be fair, that actually is almost good enough nowadays). Surely something that has been on the table since 2001 hasn't been thought over at all and its a good thing you were here to set us right.

    And I hope by "logic" you mean your subjective and easily refutable sense of ethics, or else I am totally lost and have no idea what you are talking about.

  9. Ethan,

    Ad hominem or not, I'd say your attack was unwarranted because I doubt I was the only one who didn't read the original statement closely. In fact, I didn't follow this "controversy" at all until your editorial. However, it seems to me the committee has presented more logical and better supported arguments. Perhaps you should just let this one go?

    On a personal level, I support the sharpshooting cull for several reasons: First, I come from an area where deer are severely overpopulated without any control. The result? Almost no native plants in the forests, deer eating people's gardens, and frequent accidents due to deer on roads. Second, chronic wasting disease (the deer equivalent of mad cow) has been spreading rapidly over the past several years. Studies are inconclusive about its transmission to other species; I don't want to be the first to find out. Third, more deer means more deer ticks, and I can attest to the fact that tick-borne illnesses are no fun. Cutting down on the deer population would greatly reduce the impact from all of these problems, and the sooner the better. After all, by the time immunocontraceptives have created a noticeable impact, I'll be gone from Swat. And while I hate to be selfish, it would be nice if I didn't have to worry about getting Lyme disease from running in the woods a SECOND time.

  10. I don't know jack about ecology so all the arguments sound knowledgeable and informed to me, but seriously ethan you are starting to sound like you think everyone wants to kill deer for the fun of it. obviously no one wants to kill deer for the sake of killing deer. and as stated in this letter the stewardship committee already considered contraception, and decided it wasn't the best option given the needs of the deer, and the plants, and the other animals. and no, it wasn't insulting for the stewardship committee to post this editorial because a) it's fair for them to want to respond to your editorial and b) if you didn't notice the first time that they had already considered contraception, maybe you needed to be told again.

    it sucks that the deer are going to die, but it seems like you're missing the forest for the trees (or the deer). i am sorry for you that you clearly thought that people here at swat would think of this in as black and white moralistic terms as you, and that you were wrong. that's embarrassing and it sucks. but i think most of us are thinking in terms of what is best for the crum environment as a whole, and trust in the stewardship committee rather than a pre-freshman. oh well.

    and just because you don't trust the results of the research or the people who conducted it doesn't mean it isn't true…

  11. First of all, deer are pests and sharpshooting is the most effective and quickest way to cut down the population. It's only a matter of time before someone dies or is seriously injured as a result of having hit a deer with a car. You might laugh, but deer can cause serious accidents on the road.

    Secondly, Ethan, don't you think it's a bit presumptuous to assume that you know more about ecology than fully doctorated profs at Swat? And given that if you study biology or ecology here, you might be taking classes from these very people whose opinions you attack rather clumsily? Doesn't seem like an intelligent move to me . . .

    And, Argos – let me know when you get your bowhunting license. I'll gladly join you and eat venison chili. Plus, a deer head on my wall would make for a nice decoration.

  12. Ethan. It's pretty clear that the time frame associated with contraception even PCP is unacceptable for the goals of the community.

    Also, really you should drop the talk of population bounce back since the plan is to continue culling over several years. Your conjecture of a higher rate of twinning is conceivably true but undoubtedly not based on actual data. the committee chairs have quite certainly examined this issue with some analytical rigor. I would drop the rhetoric.

  13. Just barely in time for the beginning of the December meeting of the Board of Mangers, (the party ultimately responsible for the decision to cull/kill the campus deer), I have completed my final letter advocating for contraception over sharpshooting. I have little doubt that the Property and Social Responsibility Committees (chaired by David Singleton and David Gelber, co-chaired by John Riggs and Pam Wetzels respectively) will be too busy to raise this issue again over the next couple of days, but I have sent them the material that I compiled and there is little more that I can do at this point.

    In order that the readers of the Daily Gazette might have the opportunity to read the conclusions of my latest efforts, I have posted two PDF files on MediaFire, and the links – if not blocked – should appear below. I realize that my views have not been popular, but, given that there is at least a handful of people who have been following the discussions surrounding this issue, I thought there might be some level of interest in viewing the documents that I have put together.

    The vast majority of my arguments are supported by multiple, direct quotes from cited sources, and my intention is not to argue morality but rather to expose a number of misconceptions that are commonly held about wildlife contraception, sharpshooting, and deer management in general.

    I hope that you will take a moment to consider what I have written and, more importantly, that you will make an effort to speak out about this issue on campus if you should find my case compelling. There's only so much that I can do from Massachusetts, but an organized student group might hold some sway. The board members are all on campus now, and this may be a chance for you to share your opinions with them if you feel strongly enough to do so… Despite the "community meetings" that were held, the decision to cull was largely undemocratic, and your voices should be heard.

    "A Reasoned Reconsideration of the Options for Deer Management in the Crum Woods at Swarthmore College"

    Outline –
    Documentation –

    (Note: The superscripts in the former correspond to the section numbers in the latter.)

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