May 15, 2006

Program to focus on deer safety, education

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Southern Illinois University Carbondale researcher is planning an education push this month aimed at maintaining harmony between the humans and deer occupying the campus.

Clay Nielsen, assistant scientist at the University's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, will give a presentation titled "The Nature of Deer-Human Conflicts: Avoiding Deer-Human Encounters of the Third Kind on Campus," at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 25, in Room 259, Life Science III on the SIUC campus.

The presentation is part of a multifaceted effort sponsored by the University aimed at avoiding a repeat of several such encounters on the SIUC campus last year during the deer fawning season. During last year's fawning season, which runs roughly from late May through the end of June, the University recorded nine such incidents, the majority of which involved female deer acting aggressively toward students and campus employees.

Nielsen, who specializes in studying deer and other forest creatures, said such incidents are extremely rare even in a setting such as exists at SIUC, where the campus sits nestled among large swaths of trees and brush. He hopes to educate students and employees while at the same time using the situation as an arena to study the issues surrounding humans and deer existing in such close proximity.

Nielsen said various building and maintenance activities on and around the edges of campus might have pushed deer into closer quarters with SIUC's human occupants.

"The deer may be more restricted on campus and that's what is causing them to act this way," Nielsen said. "This is an education campaign that also provides a good product for the University in terms of research and in being a way to train a graduate student."

SIUC Chancellor Walter V. Wendler said the education campaign reflects the University's focus on teaching and research.

"Educating people about deer behavior during fawning season is key to avoiding the types of incidents that occurred last year," Wendler said. "But it also demonstrates how research and teaching are inextricably linked. Our scientists monitoring the interactions will advance research about such encounters. It's one of the clear advantages that students and faculty enjoy at a research extensive university and it also benefits the general public."

Nielsen will give advice on how to avoid contact with deer and what to do if one encounters the animal unexpectedly. He also plans to post signs in certain areas around campus that have high potential for deer-human contact.

Beyond educating the public, the project has several research goals. First, Nielsen wants to estimate the deer population on and around the campus. He'll do that using a technique called "spotlight sampling," in which researchers use spotlights at night to count the number of deer in certain areas. They then plug that data into mathematical equations to come up with an estimate.

Also, the researchers will study how the deer impact local vegetation, mostly through eating it. In one technique, they will enclose portions of vegetation to keep the deer away from it, and then compare it to vegetation nearby, Nielsen said.

A third aspect involves surveying students, University employees and Carbondale residents on their attitudes and perceptions toward deer.

"We'll try to find out things like whether people have hit a deer with their car or if they're having trouble with them in their garden," Nielsen said. "Basically, how people feel about deer and whether they think there's a problem."

Deer that recently have given birth are protective of their young and view humans as potentially dangerous, Nielsen said. Although his research so far has turned up virtually no similar

incidents around the country, a repeat of last year's "close encounters" is always possible, he said.

"When you have deer and people in close proximity it can always happen," Nielsen said. "Hopefully, our educational efforts will prevent some of these just by making people more aware of the issue."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.