By Stephen J. Kotz
The controversial plan to thin the deer herd in East Hampton has been cancelled after officials of both the town and village said a lawsuit filed by opponents of the hunt had made it impractical to move forward — at least this year.
East Hampton Village, which had been the most enthusiastic supporter of a plan put forth by the Long Island Farm Bureau to enlist sharpshooters from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services to trim the herd, was the first to officially pull the plug.
“It was the intent and desire of the village to address wildlife management issues with a regional approach,” said Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. in a statement released on Friday, “but as surrounding municipalities have not committed to participate, it no longer seems a project the village can tackle on its own.”
Rickenbach said the village bailed out after New York State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Tarantino on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order preventing East Hampton Town from proceeding with a culling program.
East Hampton Town swiftly followed suit. On Friday afternoon Supervisor Larry Cantwell and Councilman Fred Overton, the board’s liaison for deer management, issued a statement indicating the town would take a step back from the program as well, citing the ongoing litigation, threats of additional lawsuits, the likelihood that its participation would require the filing of an environmental impact statement, and the fact that there had been no interest from private property owners in participating in the program.
On Tuesday, the board rescinded a resolution passed last November that would have allowed the town to sign a contract with the USDA.
“The culling program will be moved to the back burner for now,” said Overton, adding that he doubted it would be a priority in future town efforts to deal with its deer population.
“It was really just accepting the obvious,” said Cantwell, pointing out that the best window of opportunity for proceeding with the hunt would have been from the beginning of February until early March, after the regular deer hunting season and “before spring so there are not a lot of people out and about.”
Cantwell added that in the future “the board’s policy is probably going to be to expand hunting opportunities” as a major component of its efforts to control the deer population.
Bill Crain, the director of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, which along with the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons and several individuals, filed suit to try to derail the cull, said, “I’m pleased, but there is still a lot of work to do to try to avert increased hunting.”
Crain also expressed the fear that the village and town would revisit the idea of a cull in the future. “I’m concerned about how likely is it that they will just bring the cull back in 2015,” he said. “I don’t know how likely it will be, but I wish it would have been a more permanent elimination of it.”
Mayor Rickenbach, for one, said the village would still be interesting in participating in a future culling program “if it is available from the farm bureau and the USDA.” He added that the village would play an important role in any town effort to control the deer population. “The village has a seat at the table,” he said.
The Village of Sagaponack had also considered participating in the deer cull and had even authorized the expenditure of $15,000 to cover its share of the costs. But the village’s participation was contingent on both East Hampton and Southampton towns agreeing to contribute $25,000 each to the program, according to Village Clerk Rosemarie Winchell.
For their part, Southampton Town has not yet debated the Farm Bureau’s plan, since, as Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said this weeek, the proposed cull has not yet received DEC permits.
“If that happens, then we may consider it,” said Throne-Holst. “But my concern with it is, it’s only a one shot plan.”
In the meantime, the supervisor said the town’s Office of Land Management is developing a long-term deer management plan that will be presented to the town board in a work session within the next two months.
“The zoology community here tells us what occurs when you do a cull like that, the impact it has on the deer is that there is hyper-population growth, with does having multiple births,” said Throne-Holst.
“The plan we intend is one based in science,” said the supervisor.
East Hampton Town’s decision to cancel its participation in the cull program was largely set in motion after Cantwell and Overton met in late January with town attorney Elizabeth Vail, planning director Marguerite Wolffsohn and senior environmental analyst Andy Gaites to discuss the town’s options and learned that not only did the town have worry about lawsuits, but it would also be required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) to complete an environmental impact statement before proceeding, which is typically a lengthy process.
At Tuesday’s work session, board member Sylvia Overby said she wanted to know if “we have an accurate deer count” for the town. Overton noted that a 2006 count put the number at 3,300, while an aerial infrared survey, completed last year, estimated that there were only 800 to 900 deer.
Board members said they thought the latter number was woefully low, with Cantwell pointing out that hunters took more than 500 deer in the 2012-13 hunt and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc adding that town highway workers had removed as many as 800 carcasses from the roads last year. “Obviously, there is a serious data flaw here,” said Cantwell, who added that there is no money in the current town budget to undertake another survey this year.
“Without an accurate deer count, without a good census, it might be difficult to do the SEQRA,” said Overton.
Even if that hurdle was surpassed and the cull had been allowed to move forward this year, “it would have been very limited,” said Cantwell. “To be effective in February and March, you need private property owner cooperation. We had not gotten to the point where we were soliciting property owners, but we were at the point where you’d think there would be some expression of interest, but there was none.”
For now, the town seems intent on encouraging more hunting on both town and private land while keeping an open mind toward contraception and sterilization alternatives.
“Research shows bow hunting is the cruelest form of hunting,” said Crain. “It often leaves the animal with a wound to die a slow, painful death in the woods.”
Kathy Cunningham, the executive director of the East Hampton Village Preservation Society, said at Tuesday’s meeting that now that the cull is off the table, her organization would support a sterilization program, something it had offered as a complement to the hunt.
“Given the brouhaha around the cull and everything else that has happened we have been trying to generate some energy around volunteer organizations and non-profits that might help the town to fund a sterilization program because it’s not an inexpensive program. I think there is an opportunity there if the board is willing to pave the way.”
Mr. Cantwell said it would be up to advocates to bring an attractive contraception or sterilization plan to the table. “If they can find a way to be cost-effective, we’ll consider it,” he said. “But there are obstacles there. The DEC has to permit it. I would put the burden on deer advocates to come up with very specific proposals.”