Cole: Framing too narrow in Fayetteville debate to curb Lyme disease among deer

For students coming from elsewhere, the presence of deer in upstate New York might be welcomed, an excitement even. Locally, this is not the case.

Fayetteville is currently steeped in rampant debate over whether to kill local deer, and, if so, how many and through what means. Three major narratives — the increase in Lyme disease, considering deer are common carriers, danger to vehicles and consumption of foliage — are all drivers behind the push to kill, or, to stay consistent with the terminology being used, to “cull” the deer.

This debate is not unique to Fayetteville, considering Hamilton, New York is scheduled to begin baiting and killing deer Dec. 23. But for Fayetteville, the town board is currently reviewing the Deer Management Committee’s bait and cull Deer Management Plan and the discussion has a tangled web of dissenting opinions. For this, it is increasingly important to take a step back and survey the rhetorical landscape to best make sense of the current situation.

Part of what makes this issue so complicated is that geographically, the issue varies greatly from place to place due to different environmental factors.

Yet, based on the precedent set by Hamilton, Fayetteville seems intent on pushing forward with the culling argument despite a lack of scientific consensus regarding the effectiveness of baiting and culling programs.

“Studies that contradict the popular notion of deer culling are given little voice (at the Fayetteville public meetings), as compared to personal testimonies attesting to the importance of culling being heard repeatedly,” said Shannon Fabiani, a graduate student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry who is conducting research of her own surrounding this debate.

Varying scope and scale of geographic areas make knowing if a baiting and culling program is the right course of action impossible. If we can’t predict the outcome, we should at least be able to understand the process that preludes specific action.

“In Fayetteville, the root of the problem is identified as the deer. In Onondaga, the root of the problem is still considered to be Lyme disease,” said Fabiani. “From there you can see that the solution is either going to attack the deer or attack the Lyme disease.”

This distinction is crucial for understanding the trajectory of this debate. Board members of the Fayetteville Board of Trustees have repeatedly expressed at public meetings that centering efforts on Lyme disease educational programs would be “accepting defeat.”

The importance of this discursive analysis transcends the immediate issue and can be scaled up to look at larger trends of human-environment interactions.

“Are we victims that need to gain control over the deer population, or are we a part of this larger interaction and need to adapt and change the way that we’re interacting with the environment?” questions Fabiani.

Understanding the framing of human-environment interactions is critical for any topic. To see this in action, one must look no further than the current polarizing discourse enshrouding climate change in this country. Is the problem being framed as human-induced, or is it beyond our control? These two options have wildly different solutions.

As Fayetteville forges ahead with deciding the best course of action, it seems likely that some type of baiting and culling program will be implemented. This could work, or it could not.

Ironically, it will be difficult to know and debate will likely continue.

As it does, being able to identify the way the issue is being framed, and what that framing implicates as the solution, will only become more important.

Azor Cole is a senior public relations major and geography minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at azcole@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @azor_cole.


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