The Media School

Bloomington community conflicted over deer cull at Griffy Lake Nature Preserve

November 29th, 2018 by
Photograph by Mark Alvarado

Steve Cotter is the natural resources manager for the City of Bloomington’s Department of Parks & Recreation. After hearing the Deer Task Force’s findings on deer overpopulation at Griffy Lake Nature Preserve, he was convinced that the cull was the best option.

IU philosophy professor Sandra Shapshay was skeptical of the call for a deer cull at Griffy Lake Nature Preserve in 2012. In response, she and other concerned citizens formed Bloomington Activists for Nonviolent Innovative Deer Stewardship.

“We didn’t actually see that there was sufficient evidence that the deer really were causing environmental problems in Griffy,” she said.

Though Shapshay and other community members were not sure a deer cull was necessary to solve deer overpopulation at Griffy, members of the Deer Task Force were sure deer overpopulation was an issue at the Nature Preserve. Despite a divided community, local hunts will continue at Griffy in November and December to control the whitetail deer population. 

City Council voted 8-1 on Oct. 12, 2018, to approve a regulated whitetail deer hunt at the Griffy Lake Nature Preserve.

The Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department requested the vote at the recommendation of the Deer Task Force, whose members include Councilman Dave Rollo.

“We had determined that there was no other viable way to remedy the ecological degradation at Griffy except to reduce deer numbers,” he said. “And there was no way to do it in a non-lethal fashion. So that necessitated the deer cull.”

In 2012, after two years of work, the Deer Task Force advised the city to use a sharpshooting effort to control the deer population at Griffy. The Deer Task Force maintained deer were negatively impacting the environment and a deer cull was the best solution.

The Bloomington City Council approved an ordinance allowing a sharpshooting effort in 2014. The city contracted White Buffalo Inc. to conduct it and according to Natural Resources Manager Steve Cotter, it was an easy decision.

Photograph courtesy of Sandra Shapshay

Sandra Shapshay is an IU professor of philosophy and opponent of the deer cull at Griffy Lake Nature Preserve. She was not convinced that the findings of the Deer Task Force proved there was a deer overpopulation issue at Griffy.

“White Buffalo is the leading company in deer biology research,” he said. “They are widely respected. We think that they are the experts in the field.”

The report by the Deer Task Force claimed concerns for the environment and a degradation of plant biodiversity as a result of deer overpopulation. This point proved divisive in the community, with passionate debate about the impact of deer at Griffy and the best way to handle the deer.

According to Shapshay, another key argument against the planned deer cull is that neither the City of Bloomington nor the Deer Task Force conducted a count of the exact population of deer living on the Griffy Nature Preserve.

“A count would reveal if there really was an overpopulation problem,” she said.

Despite continued calls for a count of the whitetail deer population at Griffy to determine if there is an overpopulation issue, proponents of the deer cull remain adamant that a count is an unnecessary cost to the city.

According to Dave Rollo, both plant data and data on other animals, such as birds, told the Deer Task Force there was an issue that needed to be addressed quickly and aggressively.

“If you have ecological damage in the understory, it doesn’t matter how many deer there are,” he said. “You know you have too many.”

Rollo said although a count may have utility, the plant data at Griffy speaks for itself. With the level of degradation observed, a count was not necessary to know a response was needed.

 “If you have ecological damage in the understory, it doesn’t matter how many deer there are. You know you have too many.” – Dave Rollo, council member, City of Bloomington

Concerned Bloomington citizens like Anne Sterling, the vice president of state affairs at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and an avid user of the Griffy Lake Nature Preserve, are not convinced that deer cull supporters have proven any intervention is necessary.

“I don’t necessarily even think anything needs to be done,” she said. “I feel that the proponents of the kill need to better establish that there is a problem that needs to be solved.”

Opponents of lethal deer population control don’t agree the ecological data collected by the Deer Task Force is conclusive.

According to Sterling, the deer exclosures, meant to keep deer out of specified areas at the IU Research and Teaching Preserve adjacent to Griffy, keep more than just deer out.

“An exclosure shows you what a forest environment would look like with no one in it,” she said. “Not only were there not deer in the exclosure, there weren’t dogs. There weren’t squirrels. There weren’t people. There weren’t school tours. there was no one.”

Cull supporters and opponents have one thing in common; they want what is best for Griffy. According to Rollo, Griffy is an important part of the community and it’s not only plants at stake but bees and birds as well.

“To me, this preserve is precious, so we need to protect it and restore it,” he said. “So, I couldn’t let it go.”