By Tessa Raebeck
Plans to unleash federal sharpshooters on the East End deer population have been met with bureaucratic setbacks and vocal opposition, but are moving forward nonetheless.
In coordination with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Long Island Farm Bureau (LIFB) plans to hire USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) sharpshooters to kill deer with high-powered rifles to cull the local herds.
In addition to carrying tick-borne illnesses, causing car accidents and adversely affecting other animal habitats, deer destroy an estimated $3 to $5 million worth of crops annually on the East End, according to Joe Gergela, LIFB executive director.
Gergela said the cull, which will be largely funded by a $200,000 state grant, aims to kill 1,500 to 2,000 deer. All processed meat will go to Island Harvest to feed the hungry on Long Island.
“We felt whatever we did with the grant should be for community as well as farming benefit,” Gergela said Wednesday, adding a cull is crucial to having a successful agricultural industry.
LIFB has asked that villages and towns who want the sharpshooters sign onto the program by committing $15,000 or $25,000, respectively.
The DEC has yet to reveal whether it will require a single permit for the program or make each municipality signing onto the program file individually. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. said Tuesday although many municipalities have expressed interest in joining the program, they don’t want the legal liability of having the permit in their name.
So far, East Hampton Village, Southold Town and the eastern part of Brookhaven Town have signed on.
North Haven Village opted out, but is pursuing its own organized cull.
Sagaponack Village’s participation is contingent on the participation of both East Hampton and Southampton towns.
Southampton Town has thus far stayed mute on the subject — which has been under public discussion since September. Calls to Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst were not returned as of press time.
The East Hampton Town Board, under the previous administration, adopted a deer management plan that included plans for a cull. On Tuesday, however, newly elected Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he was unsure if the town would, in fact, join the LIFB in this initiative.
“At the moment, it’s up in the air,” Cantwell said, adding he would like to see culling on a limited basis and there are advantages to participating, but the town’s decision will be based primarily on the opinions of its residents.
“To some extent,” said Cantwell, “this is happening fairly quickly in terms of building a community consensus moving forward.”
The East Hampton Group for the Wildlife, the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons and 13 individuals have filed suit against East Hampton Town, East Hampton Village and the East Hampton Town Trustees.
The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order against the town’s deer management plan and specifically, any proposal that calls for an organized cull.
“The lawsuit,” Cantwell said, “is certainly a factor in the decision-making process about this.”
Critics contend little information has been provided to show the cull is truly necessary.
“Killing other beings as a way of solving the problem is abhorrent, unethical and monstrous to me,” said East Hampton Group for the Wildlife President Bill Crain. “These are living beings with families and social lives and emotions, so to kill them just seems like a moral outrage.”
“It’s not about animal cruelty and all the nonsense that the Bambi lovers are spouting,” Gergela said. “If they would sit down and listen to people, they would realize there are no practical solutions other than to hunt or to cull.”
A petition on change.org to stop the “stealth plan to brutally slaughter 5,000 East End deer” had garnered over 10,600 signatures as of press time. In addition to local residents, activists from as far away as Belgium have signed the petition, which calls for the “unethical, ‘quick-fix,’ non-science-based plan” to “immediately cease and desist.”
A rally in protest of the cull will be held Saturday, starting at 1 p.m. at the Hook Mill in East Hampton.
Gergela dismissed the opposition as a “vocal minority” of non-locals with “no vested interest other than they enjoy animals and they enjoy their peaceful weekend on Long Island.”
“That’s very nice,” he added, “but for those of us that live here, whether you’re a farmer or a general citizen that’s had an accident, that has Lyme Disease or whatever, everybody says to me, ‘You’re doing a great thing.’”
Local hunters have also expressed their opposition to the cull, arguing if state and local governments lessened hunting restrictions, they themselves could thin the deer population.
Terry Crowley, a lifelong Sagaponack resident whose family has been hunting on the East End for generations, called the cull “a little ridiculous.”
“They should just change a few laws so more deer can be killed,” Crowley said Tuesday.
Thiele is working on legislation that would implement the state deer management plan, which has a number of recommendations to increase hunting opportunities, including expanding the January season to include weekends and allow bow and arrow hunting.
Cantwell voiced his support of such legislation.
“I certainly want to work with the local hunters who want to take deer,” the supervisor said Tuesday, “because I do think that removing some deer from the population on an ongoing basis is necessary to control the population.”