Community-based Deer Management: Planning for Success

Photo by Madeline LeClaire Mitchell

by Emily F. Pomeranz, Meghan S. Baumer & Daniel J. Decker
Human Dimensions Research Unit
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

As expanding populations of white-tailed deer and their associated interactions with humans result in an acute array of ecological, economic, and human health and safety impacts, municipalities across much of the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states have been developing deer management programs to address these impacts locally. Not all municipalities working through a community-based deer management (CBDM) decision-making process have access to wildlife planners, consultants, or deer management experts as a resource for help in guiding their efforts.

In response to this situation, the Human Dimensions Research Unit (HDRU) at Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension and The Nature Conservancy have been engaged in an outreach effort that includes the development of the Community Deer Advisor website (deeradvisor.org). The Community Deer Advisor (Fig. 1) is aimed at helping communities connect with resources, learn about other communities who have worked through similar processes, and apply best practices as they cycle through a CBDM process.

We’ve worked with community leaders across the country to identify local examples that illustrate the various forms these municipal processes take. During the course of compiling these examples and their associated deer management plans, we learned that content of plans differ vastly. This observation motivated us to examine the plans carefully for content and completeness.

Simultaneously, we recognized that one outcome of taking a closer look at the plans could be useful for developing a resource to aid communities that will be creating or revising comprehensive plans for deer management in the future. In particular, we believed identifying common gaps in plans could result in people avoiding them in the future. We became convinced that an educational resource providing guidance on writing plans could serve as a useful tool (though not a substitute) for communities lacking direct assistance from wildlife planners or consultants.

What we were looking for

Our review of the community-based deer management plans began with a few questions: What do they cover? How do they differ? What content is typically included or absent? Finally, what would be the nature of a resource that could help communities write a complete plan? To answer these questions, we began with an analysis of 25 CBDM plans from municipalities across the country. Plans were compared against a coding protocol based on the research and experience of those in HDRU as well as what deer management experts at Cornell University consider to be elements of a complete plan.

What we found

Few plans included all of what can reasonably be considered key components, such as goals, objectives, budgets, and timetables.

  • Only 36% of plans include detailed, measurable objectives.
  • Less than half (44%) of plans include indicators for monitoring the progress of their deer management programs, and only two plans link those indicators directly to their objectives.
  • Twenty percent of the plans reviewed include a budget, and 44% include timetables for their program.
  • Only 20% of plans indicate that they received assistance from a state environmental agency.

If you are interested in detailed results, the comprehensive report can be found here.

What we think needs emphasis

Based on our findings, we’ve distilled a few elements that might benefit from special emphasis for communities developing a deer management plan.

Problem Description

A plan should begin with a description of the local deer management problem. What kinds of deer-related problems are occurring? Where and when are these problems occurring? Who is experiencing these problems? How severe are the problems? While many plans we reviewed include the impacts prompting their deer management problem, fewer include details about when and where they are occurring, their severity, or who is being affected.

  • Emphasizing the importance of not just identifying impacts, but also the details of those impacts is critical. Ensuring impacts are clearly described helps contribute to the overall credibility of a plan, as they guide the development of goals and objectives.

Goals and Objectives

Many plans do not give much attention to describing goals and objectives. Frequently, goals and objectives are confused—and sometimes management actions are described as objectives. Given that many communities tend to focus on actions right away—leaving goals and objectives unspoken—it’s unsurprising that actions, goals, and objectives might be conflated.

  • It’s essential to stress that when communities are writing their management plans, distinguishing between goals and objectives is meaningful—and need to be developed prior to selecting actions. Actions should be chosen because they support a program’s goals and objectives, not the reverse.
  • A way to describe goals is that they reflect a vision for desired future conditions—they aren’t inherently measurable without a connection to objectives.  Objectives reflect the specific outcomes needed to achieve goals. Objectives are measurable and have a time date for achievement. They should be relevant and attainable—and linked directly to goals.

Actions Considered & Recommended

All of the deer management plans reviewed include information about the recommended course of action for their deer management programs. While many plans describe the actions they considered, few include a description of how the actions they ultimately selected will meet the objectives of the plan.

  • It’s essential to emphasize that this section be complete and clear, as controversy around deer management in communities is often focused on management actions. Explaining which actions were considered and why they weren’t recommended provides a critical part of the rationale for any plan, and communities should be encouraged to be as specific as possible: cite studies, resident surveys, budget estimates, or expert opinion.
  • Whatever data, input, or logic is used to select an action or set of actions needs to be clearly outlined and completely described.

Plan for Monitoring

Despite the importance of monitoring progress towards achieving objectives, a strategy for doing so tends to be left out of plans. Less than half of plans identify indicators for monitoring, and even fewer provide any further details about those indicators.

  • A plan for monitoring should not only include the indicators identified for tracking progress towards objectives, but also the specific data to collect for each indicator, who is going to collect those data, and how they will do it.
  • It’s critical to emphasize that monitoring not be a secondary consideration for communities, but should be viewed as just as important as selecting objectives and actions for any CBDM program.

Plan for Public Engagement

A description of public outreach and engagement efforts is one of the more commonly reported elements of plans. Plans report a wide range of outreach and engagement activities, from holding public meetings, conducting surveys, developing a deer management page on a municipal website, and holding workshops.

  • It’s important to continue to emphasize to communities the significance of public outreach and engagement activities, and that ideally these should be accounted for in budgets and timetables alongside deer management actions.

Budget and Timetable

Few plans include a formal budget. Commonly, a cost estimate is provided for just a few actions throughout the body of the plan and they tend to only be one-time costs.

  • The budget should include estimated costs for each element of a plan for each year that the effort is funded (given the duration of the plan), identifying both one-time costs and recurring costs.
  • Accounting for recurring costs is vital, as deer management is not a one-time effort. It often takes a long time horizon to work towards the changes in impacts a community desires. Deer management experts at Cornell have noticed that the most successful communities often have an annual line item for deer management in their municipal budget. Doing something for a few years then stopping is usually not a great use of resources, and is a common flaw in most plans.

Timetables, which include both long-term and short-term milestones, are more frequently reported than budgets, but still less than half of the plans we reviewed include them.

  • Timetables should identify who is responsible for achieving included tasks, and it should be updated when delays or obstacles arise. Timetables help communities stay accountable, and communities should be encouraged to be as specific as possible with respect to the progress of their program.

While not every community develops a formal CBDM plan, choosing to do so is an effective way to organize and record all of the work a community has done and will do to manage deer. What we’ve described in this article provides just a brief overview of some of the components of a CBDM plan that require special emphasis, given our evaluation of existing plans. Our educational resource for community members, educators, and wildlife professionals developing CBDM plans will be available on the Community Deer Advisor website (www.deeradvisor.org) this October.

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