Sharpshooters set sights on East End deer; public concern abounds in towns

Deer have become so accustomed to humans on the East End that they often pose for photographs.
Deer have become so accustomed to humans that they often pose for photographs.

In the two months since the Centers for Disease Control announced that Lyme Disease is 10 times more prevalent than they had previously thought, there’s been a lot of action on the part of East End governments to try to tamp down the deer ticks that carry the disease.

A proposal by the Long Island Farm Bureau to bring in sharpshooters from the United States Department of Agriculture to kill deer throughout the East End has risen to the forefront of serious options being considered, but there is concern among the public that such culling is not necessarily effective.

The Farm Bureau has been pitching a plan to spend $200,000 in state grant money to bring in USDA sharpshooters to towns and villages. The Farm Bureau is asking the towns and villages to pitch in with $25,000 each of their own funding.

Farm Bureau Executive Joe Gergela says USDA hunters are able to supercede differing hunting rules on different types of property, which can make them more effective than hunters who are relegated to smaller areas. He hopes to have the program off the ground by February.

“The problem is there is no state management plan by the DEC. It’s all fragmented — state property here, county here, town here,” he said. “What it has lead to over the years is Southold is developing a plan. In Riverhead, Tom Gabrielsen is working with the hunting committee. East Hampton has done the same thing. It has a pretty sophisticated plan with a lot of stakeholders involved. There are a lot of animal rights-type people there who wanted it to be as humane as possible.”

“We need a regional plan,” he said.

The sharpshooters, who work at night and can hunt in residential areas if the neighborhood approves, are not cheap. Mr. Gergela has been busy pitching the project to the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, asking towns and villages to sign on. He said most local leaders are with him in spirit, but some don’t have money to participate. In areas without the money, he said, the Farm Bureau will send the sharpshooters to areas where deer are known to congregate.

The Farm Bureau’s grant doesn’t require a match from the towns, he said, but “I doing this on my own to grow the pot of money so we can be effective over time.”

Mr. Gergela acknowledged that deer fences the Farm Bureau helped to build along farmland do protect crops, but have a side effect of moving more deer in residential areas.

 “Fencing does protect crops but it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “Some people don’t like hunting. We understand that. This not only affects farmers, it affects the entire East End community. Some people think ticks get carried on mice. At the end of the day, there are going to be people who are not happy about it, but the numbers have to get down. This is no longer a manageable situation.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell included $25,000 for the sharpshooters in his proposed 2014 budget, but he reminded residents at Southold’s last town board meeting Oct. 8 that the USDA sharpshooter program is “not a panacea.”

“They can’t come into town and eviscerate a herd overnight,” he said, adding that a USDA sharpshooter pilot program in Nassau Point last year wasn’t terribly effective.

“The first year [in Southold] they took out four or five deer…. You need to be in for a long-term commitment,” he said.

“There’s only so much the USDA can do. They’re not a bottomless pit,” he added. I think we need to set realistic expectations. Are they going to be the solution? No. Are they going to be part of the solution? Yes.”

Southold lawmakers have been among the most active on the East End in also promoting a change in state law to allow hunters to shoot deer within 150 feet of a house. They’re currently prohibited from shooting within 500 feet of a house. Every candidate running for town board next week said at a debate last week that they intend to try to get the state to let hunters closer to houses.

Benja Schwartz of Cutchogue said at the Oct. 8 town board meeting that he’s read studies that show that if the reduction of the deer population is less than 50 percent, there is more food available for the deer that remain alive.

“Then, they have more babies and it increases the rate of growth of the population,” he said. “Does anyone have plans to kill all the deer?”

Mr. Russell said he’s seen research that showed that the town would need to reduce the deer population to 60 percent of its current size in order for it to be manageable.

“It takes time to get there. We can’t do it overnight,” he said.

Mr. Gergela says he understands the importance of reducing the number of deer to a manageable level, which is why DEC nuisance permits require hunters to take female deer before trophy bucks.

“Without taking out some of the does, they’re having two to three babies every year,” he said. “The DEC estimates there’s a herd of 27,000 to 28,000 animals in Suffolk County. That’s a lot of deer for the habitat we have left. They’re doing a lot of damage, from an ecological standpoint.”

East Hampton Town is also planning to encumber $23,000 of its 2013 surplus for use in joining the sharpshooter program, but reactions from the public there have been mixed.

Kathy Cunningham urged the East Hampton Town Board on Oct. 17 to consider non-lethal options for reducing the population of deer, including contraception, which can cost in excess of $1,000 per deer.

“That’s a critical piece to maintaining an acceptable level of population. It has a lot of support from the community,” she said. “I know it’s not an inexpensive approach.”

Ilyssa Meyer told the East Hampton board Thursday night that CDC research has actually shown that reducing the number of deer does not reduce the number of deer ticks.

“You’ve brought sharpshooters to the town to discuss this, and none of them knew about the CDC research, which scares me a lot,” she said. She added that she believes the town should consider the 4-Poster program, a deer feeding station that coats deer with pesticides that kill ticks, which had some success reducing the number of ticks on Shelter Island.

“We need to use deer to kill ticks,” she said. “I wish that you would believe me…this is not a political issue. This is a human issue. Where will the ticks go if you kill the deer? On you your children, your grandchildren and your pets.”

Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said he has contacted State Senator Ken LaValle to ask for grant money for the 4-Poster program and has asked both Mr. LaValle and State Assemblyman Fred Thiele to look into whether Community Preservation Fund money can be used to install 4-Posters at land the town has preserved.

Ms. Meyer said she hopes the 4-Posters are installed before March of next year, when each breeding tick will produce 2,500 more ticks.

Bill Crain, president of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, has staged several hunger strikes at town hall to try to change the town’s policy on deer hunting.

“I do not believe most people in town want to see anything like a cull,” he said. “I do not believe you’d want to show videos or want kids to see what’s happening. It’s a barbarous thing.”

Mr. Crain added that the town’s recently adopted deer management plan “has created a false sense of emergency,” and reminded the board that a count of deer in town earlier this year showed the population had declined by more than two-thirds since the last count [differences in methodology between the two studies may have been a contributing factor to the different numbers].

“We’re committed to research. Research suggests we’ve had a decline,” he said. “The need is for more research. It’s very unlikely that a cull will help with a tick problem. Instead, you should be looking at things like the 4-Poster that would work to reduce Lyme Disease. The plan includes all these things, but the first thing you’re going to do is slaughter the deer. Don’t start out with this barbaric hammer.”

Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said she thinks there should be a public discussion on whether residents of East Hampton even want to see culling done in their town.

“These are decisions that hadn’t been made yet when we passed our deer management plan,” she said. “Are we making a choice to cull? I’m not sure we’ve had that conversation yet as a town.”

Ms. Overby also said she is also confused as to why East Hampton Village is considering allowing the sharpshooters in when it is illegal to discharge firearms in the village.

Councilman Dominick Stanzione said he wants to recognize that members of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife “vociferously and passionately disagree” with the town’s support for deer hunting. He added that a mass sterilization program could cost the town up to $600,000 over three years.

“Our deer management working group thought that the best option on behalf of the people was to pursue a managed cull,” he said, adding that the culling could include the USDA sharpshooters or could simply rely on local hunters.

Mr. Stanzione added that he doesn’t think the Farm Bureau had run into any opposition from towns they’ve approached about the hunting plan.

“The towns around us are facing a fork in the road,” he said. “Decisions are being made by responsible public officials.”

Mr. Gergela agreed.

“I represent the farming interests. This costs us millions of dollars a year in crop loss,” he said. “But everybody is affected one way or another. I’m trying to do it in the spirit of community interest. At the end of the day, this is a responsibility of our government. We have some work to do. We want to do it right. We want to have everyone benefit and we want it to not be a huge hysterical chaotic situation.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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