In part, it was the winter’s foul weather. In part, it was the limited amount of land available to them. And the groundswell of public opposition to this past winter’s USDA deer cull on the East End couldn’t have helped their cause.
In the end, USDA sharpshooters working on farmland throughout the East End and on town and private land in Southold Town only managed to kill 192 deer during their six-week-long cull this past winter, far fewer than the thousands of deer opponents of the program had expected to be culled.
Members of the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Southold Town Board, USDA Wildlife Services workers and state and county lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday morning on the steps of Southold Town Hall to outline the results of the project.
The Long Island Farm Bureau had allocated $200,000 in grant money for the cull, while Southold had agreed to spend $25,000, though Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela said the amount actually spent on the program by the farm bureau has not yet been finalized and he did not want to release those numbers today.
“It was a pilot program that had not been done on Long Island,” said Farm Bureau President Karen Rivara. “The numbers were disappointing for many reasons. The nature of a pilot project is learning.”
Ms. Rivara said the USDA sharpshooters donated more than 6,000 pounds of venison to Island Harvest and the organizers of the cull learned it could be done in a safe and humane way.
In all, USDA Wildlife Services killed 132 deer on 2,035 acres of land on the North Fork and 60 deer on 332 acres on the South Fork.
Martin Lowney of the USDA’s Wildlife Services said sharpshooters were only able to work on 12 properties, and didn’t achieve their goals. He said part of the problem was that the sharpshooters were only given DEC permits to kill a certain number of deer on each property, and quickly filled those permits on some properties with abundant deer.
The USDA’s report also said that “unauthorized human activities near shooting zones and baiting sites had a negative impact on the overall success of the program.”
The USDA’s cameras documented 20 occasions in which humans interfered with baiting sites, and on seven occasions, “people interfered accidentally or intentionally with deer removal operations.”
On one occasion, they said, police were called when someone tried to obstruct their work.
The USDA was also concerned that some people had been using social media to post the location of their work, creating security concerns for the USDA workers.
Mr. Gergela said opponents of the program had even called his house and said they thought he should have been shot instead of the deer.
Despite the controversy over the cull, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the project still has the “full and unwavering support of the Southold Town Board.”
He cited widespread deer tick-borne disease, damage to crops and landscaping and car accidents involving deer as “without a doubt an environmental and public health crisis.”
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, a farmer in Cutchogue, said as a child he never saw deer on his family’s farm, but after he returned from college, no old-school method of keeping deer away from crops — from rubbing soap on plants to putting out human hair clippings or radios — deterred them.
“Deer are very comfortable with people,” he said. “It wasn’t working. Deer fences are the only way we could grow food in this town.”
But, he said, those fences just push deer into other parts of town.
State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo of New Suffolk said he and South Fork Assemblyman Fred Thiele are working on state legislation to extend the hunting season through March, after successfully passing a bill that would allow hunters to shoot deer closer to houses earlier this year.
“We feel this has become an epidemic,” he said. “It’s not Bambi sniffing flowers.”
While Mr. Russell said he’s not sure if Southold will participate in a USDA cull in the future, he said “all options are on the table,” including sterilization methods and expanded hunting, for controlling deer in the future. He said his office will support the methods that are most effective and most cost-conscious in the future.
Mr. Gergela said he learned a lot about public relations throughout the course of the project.
“We tried to do it for the greater good. We tried to make it a community project,” he said. “It did not work out that way…. We’re proud of the role we played. If anyone has a problem with that, that’s their problem.”