By Annette Hinkle
The overabundance of deer is one of the biggest issues facing the East End — and it’s a problem that has been growing for years. In addition to carrying ticks that spread disease and causing accidents on roadways, deer are also blamed for a substantial amount of damage to vegetation locally.
For farmers, the effects of too many deer browsing in their fields can be downright devastating.
As a result, the Long Island Farm Bureau is coordinating with the state DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) to implement a program this winter to reduce deer numbers. The plan is to bring USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sharpshooters to the East End to cull the herd, now estimated to be in the range of 25,000.
The program was initiated by the farm bureau through $200,000 in funding in the 2013 state budget. Though the money was not designated for deer culling, per se, the farm bureau felt it was prudent to utilize the funds in this manner.
“We decided the best course of action was to use the money for a community purpose, not just for farmers,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau who estimates deer destroy $3 to $5 million worth of crops annually on the East End. “We rely on hunters as well as nuisance permits, but it hasn’t been effective overall. The herd has grown exponentially over the last 25 years to the point where not only farmers but the public have also expressed concern.”
To make the money go further, Gergela added that the farm bureau is asking East End villages and towns to sign onto the program by committing $15,000 or $25,000 respectively to have sharpshooters come to their municipalities.
“If everyone buys in, that’s supposedly $275,000 to $300,000 and we’re going to do the best we can with the money we have,” explained Gergela. “If towns say ‘no’ and if there’s money left over, we’ll do our best to help our farmers there.”
“The goal is to do as much as we can reasonably with the money we have,” he added. “We know there’s a vocal minority who oppose this plan, but many of these deer are going to die from being out in the cold without food because they’ve decimated the natural habitat.”
Gergela said the cull would take place in a four or five week window beginning in February. The timing, he explained, is designed to give local hunters a chance to cull what deer they can during hunting season which runs through late January. The meat from the culled deer will go to Island Harvest to feed the hungry on Long Island.
“I think 1,000 to 2,000 deer would be pretty good and I would consider that successful,” said Gergela. “I don’t think it’s 40 days and done. I think next year we would try to continue the program. There are still thousands of thousands of animals.”
“I know it’s not popular with the public, but we’re going to do this one way or another to reduce the deer population,” said Gergela. “We have to see how successful we are and if down the road, we might have to do it another a year. We’re keeping our fingers crossed it’s successful and helps achieve and create balance.”
“That’s all we’re after – balance,” he added.
USDA sharpshooters use suppressed rifles and depending on terrain, either trap deer with a drop net, work as a mobile team with a driver, spotter and shooter, or shoot from tree stands. Allen Gosser, Assistant State Director at USDA, Wildlife Services, said he expects municipalities to confirm their participation in the program by January 1. At that point, he said, coordination would begin to determine where on the East End the USDA will be doing its work.
“The marksmen identify safe shooting areas and start baiting to draw the deer to them,” explained Gosser. “The marksmen know they have to shoot in the zone. It needs to be safe, humane and effective.”
At this point, on the South Fork East Hampton Village has committed to the plan, and members of the East Hampton Town Deer Management Advisory Committee have recommended that the town board sign on to the program as well, which it may consider at its work session next Tuesday, December 17.
In November, the Sagaponack Board of Trustees passed a resolution to commit to the program, contingent upon participation of both East Hampton and Southampton towns.
“One reason we’re only interested in participating if Southampton and East Hampton agree is it seems silly for us to do something within our borders when we’re surrounded by the two towns,” explained Sagaponack Mayor Donald Louchheim. “The deer will move where the food is or there are the fewest deer to compete with.”
“The board has agreed that it doesn’t want to be an outlier in this program,” he added. “If it is going to occur, we would like to be included and participate with our neighbors.”
As of early this week, Southampton Town had yet to come to a final decision on whether it will be taking part in the program and North Haven Village has opted out of the program.
According to Mayor Jeff Sander, the village prefers, instead, to pursue its own methods of controlling deer.
“If we do enact something, we want some control,” explained Sander. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the group White Buffalo which presented at our board meeting. They seem a very professional organization and I would lean toward going with them and a managed program that our residents are in tune with and behind.”
“I think we’ll have a lot more control — so we’re not participating,” he added.
Meanwhile, a petition is being circulated via change.org by the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island calling for town and village boards on the East End to “cease and desist” from signing onto the farm bureau’s plan.
As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 4,000 people had signed the petition.
Calling the program an unethical “quick-fix” and its methods of culling “inhumane,” the petition advocates the use of alternative methods instead to control deer populations — specifically non-lethal deer management plans using immuno-contraception.
But proponents of culling say immuno-contraception is not only expensive, but also extremely difficult to implement.
For his part, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Jr. feels the most effective way to manage deer populations on the East End is a solution involving multiple approaches. While Thiele noted he had no “philosophical problem” with reducing the deer herd, he added it should be considered as part of a larger regional plan to address the issue.
“I think you need both lethal and non lethal approaches,” he said. “I don’t think you can solve this through either culling or immuno-contraception only and I think it should be a comprehensive plan for both.”
“Any successful strategy will have to incorporate a number of initiatives,” he added. “We have to look at the long term. If we kill 2,000 or 3,000 deer and don’t do anything again, we’ll be back in the same place in a year or two or three.”
“Same with the four poster program,” Thiele said. “We have to be in it for the long haul.”
At the Sagaponack Village meeting on Monday, Louchheim noted that four people came to protest the farm bureau’s plan for culling — three, he said, were from wildlife preservation organizations and one was a bow hunter who felt the program should rely on hunters like himself rather than USDA sharpshooters to cull the herd.
“The board is not interested in being branded deer slayers, but they are a nuisance,” said Louchheim. “We have invested time and taxpayer money into the preservation of farmland and open space here. The farmers have a right to farm and there is an argument that the deer have a right to be here, but there’s no question the deer population has just surged.”
“I don’t want to pick a fight with the deer lovers, but like any other nuisance, we have a municipal obligation to try and control them,” added Louchheim. “Clearly it’s time to address the problem — and it is a problem, that is undeniable.”