There were tripods to trip over and telephoto lenses to dodge, television reporters with bulky microphones running around asking people to spell their names, and the front entrance to the building became News 12’s private interview booth at Southold Town’s Peconic Lane Recreation Center last night.
They were all there to hear what Southolders have been hearing at similar meetings that have garnered far less media attention over the years: People here are fed up with deer.
The Long Island Farm Bureau received a $200,000 grant to bring in USDA sharpshooters to cull the East End’s deer herd, and Southold Town has been one of their staunchest supporters, pledging an additional $25,000 to the cull, which is slated to begin in little more than a month.
A large group of opponents of the cull are planning a demonstration at East Hampton’s Hook Mill tomorrow, Jan. 18, beginning at 1 p.m., but Southold is a different place than East Hampton, as Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela was quick to point out to the folks at last night’s meeting.
“They’re famous people with a lot of money who have no investment in the community,” he said frankly, though he did say he had liked to watch deer frolic on his farm field as a young man, before they became the nuisance they are today. “A lot of citizens are not happy about the methodology. All we’re trying to do is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, to use an old farmer’s expression.”
There was no shortage of frank talk at Thursday’s meeting, which was designed to give USDA’s New York State Director for Wildlife Services Martin Lowney a chance to talk about what exactly it is that his sharpshooters do.
There are essentially two types of hunts his group does, both of which depend on land owners giving them permission to hunt on their properties. The culls are done at night using silencers on their firearms, which regular hunters are prohibited from using. In the first type of cull, deer are baited with a line of cracked corn or apples near a tree stand where a hunter is hidden, said Mr. Lowney. Regular hunters are also not allowed to bait deer.
“There’ll be a doe and fawns, a line of corn, a line of apples, and you’re elevated, shooting down. You could humanely shoot all the deer in the brain and do this all safely,” he said. “You’re at 25 yards, which is pretty close and pretty selective.”
Mr. Lowney said the sharpshooters could decide after they kill the doe whether or not to kill her fawns, and if the juvenile deer were old enough to determine their sex, they would focus on killing the females.
A few women in the audience gasped, clutched their purses and mumbled.
“We have different motivations than hunters. We’re wildlife biologists,” he said. “You need to harvest 38 percent of the females to slow down the reproductive engine.”
The venison would be donated to food pantries.
He said USDA sharpshooters also travel in a mobile unit that uses a thermal imager to see deer while they travel.
Mr. Lowney said the only contraceptive approved for use on deer, GonaCon, would cost $2,000 to $3,000 per deer, or about $30 million per year to sterilize all the female deer in Suffolk County.
“If you wanna spend 30 million dollars, probably every year, forever, it’s your choice. I’m not going to tell you it’s a good choice,” he said. “The only thing GonaCon does is to hold the population stable.”
Mike Tessitore of East Quogue, who runs the hunting advocacy group Hunters for Deer, was upset that no one on the panel could tell him how much per deer the USDA hunt would cost. He said hunters in his group would be happy to kill the deer using the USDA’s methods, if they were allowed to do so, and he wanted the hunt to be put to the public for a referendum.
“Our group is for putting food on our tables,” he said. “You’re being forced into this position because legislation is not being effected to help hunters be successful. It’s costing $1,000 a deer to do this. Let us shoot with rifles at night. We can’t do that in New York. We can’t bait either. We’re here to feed our families. I’m not a rich person.”
The undercurrent of Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses couldn’t help but influence the discussion. Mr. Lowney said 44 percent of the state’s ehrlichiosis cases and 49 percent of babesiosis cases are in Suffolk County and Suffolk is also one of the top counties in the state for Lyme Disease.
Claire Kennedy of Southold said her three sons, ages 17, 15, and 7, had all tested positive for Lyme Disease, and her oldest son had been hospitalized for Lyme pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of his heart due to Lyme Disease.
“It’s devastating to me as a mother,” she said. “I don’t want to think my children will go through life with this. It can pop back up any time. They didn’t get it tromping through the woods. They just liked to play in the yard.”
Marie Domenici of Mattituck said if the public health issues in Southold begin to get more media attention, as they apparently had begun to last night, something would have to be done.
“Our real estate values are going to go right in the toilet when major media finds out about these major diseases,” she said.