This May will be the first spring turkey hunting season in Suffolk County, as the wild turkey population here has ballooned in recent years.

Turkeys had all but disappeared from Long Island in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as the lands here were cleared, first for agriculture and then for the eastward march of suburbanization. 

In the mid-1990s, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation trapped 75 wild turkeys upstate and brought them to Long Island, where against all odds they begat a population that is now believed to be upwards of 3,000 birds.

The DEC first allowed a five-day turkey hunting season on Long Island just before Thanksgiving in 2009, and has since been holding both the pre-Thanksgiving season and a youth turkey hunting weekend in April, but this year it is introducing a month-long spring season, from May 1 through 31, from a half hour before dawn until noon each day.

This year’s youth spring turkey hunt will be the weekend of April 22 through April 23.

While each parcel has different regulations for the method of hunting allowed, the DEC allows turkey hunters to use longbows and often shotguns on Long Island. Rifles and crossbows are not permitted.

Unlike the fall season, when both male and female turkeys can be shot, the spring season is just for males — turkey hens are nesting at this time.

While the DEC is allowing turkey hunting on select DEC and cooperatively managed lands, individual towns have the right to decide whether to allow hunting on town-owned lands.

This proposal has proved most controversial in East Hampton Town, which is planning to open up 19 of its nature preserves to hunting for the month of May, excluding May 25 through 29 — Memorial Day Weekend, when town trails are often packed with visitors.

In East Hampton, where large numbers of animal lovers and sportsmen have been at odds for years over hunting, the proposal has met with much public comment, both for and against the spring season.

The town board is slated to vote on a resolution allowing the hunt at its April 6 meeting at 2 p.m., and members of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife are planning a demonstration outside Town Hall at 1 p.m. in anticipation of the vote. The Group has gathered more than 700 signatures to date on a petition opposing the town’s participation in the hunt.

At the East Hampton Town Board’s Valentine’s Day meeting, many spoke about their love for turkeys. 

East Hampton Group for Wildlife President Bill Crain, who led a successful effort several years back to keep East Hampton from participating in a proposed USDA deer “cull” sponsored by the Long Island Farm Bureau, shared a story of four little turkeys who live at a farm sanctuary he helps to run upstate.

“They were constantly on the move, making noise,” he said, until one day, a group of Girl Scouts came to visit and recited a pledge to honor and cherish animals in the center of the barn.

“These four turkeys took their places at the corners of the circle of girls, and sat down quietly and turned their heads to the Girl Scouts giving the recitations,” he said. “They obviously couldn’t understand the words, but they must have sensed and responded to the quiet reverence. It’s like they have spiritual emotions. They want to live, as much as we do, and we should do what we can to let them live.”

Betsy Petroski said she believes the hunt is “purely an opportunity for the DEC to sell additional hunting permits, and added that the spring is a fragile time of year for turkeys.

Laura Gunderson said two years ago, she and her dog found a turkey stuck in a fence on her property with an arrow in its chest, and had also found two dead deer on their property with wounds that looked like they’d been shot with an arrow. The night after she found the dead deer, she said, “somebody came at night, cut off the deer’s head, and threw it further into our property. It was a really disturbing act of disregard for life.”

By the board’s next work session, on March 7, members of the East Hampton Sportsman’s Alliance had rallied to bring a counter-narrative to the town board’s work session. 

“We’ve had a youth hunting weekend in April for 11 years, and had a regular fall season for 14 years, and this all happened without incident,” said East Hampton Sportsman’s Alliance President Terry O’Riordan. “In New York State everyone who hunts must take and pass a hunter safety course, and DEC regulations are voluminous. This just makes our season consistent with the spring turkey season upstate.”

“The ecosystem is exhausted. If you let wildlife completely go, there are often negative kickbacks,” said Mike Stork of Springs. “They don’t really have predators out here.”

Dana O’Leary said she is a hunter, and her 12-year-old son is enrolled in hunting safety courses, and she’s “a bit troubled the Council would be considering amending any of the rules and regulations against our ability to hunt here.”

Lifelong East Hampton resident Steve Griffiths said he has spent many days in a duck blind with his son, said the DEC has no reports of accidents among turkey hunters on Long Island.

“In East Hampton, there are many activities with more potential for injuries — at town beaches, bicycle riders, battery-powered scooters, skateboaders without helmets.”

Mr. Griffiths said that, while turkeys may eat ticks, “in my neighborhood they go from bird feeder to bird feeder.”

“I can’t believe people move to this town and want to change our local traditions,” he said. “It really makes me feel sick to my stomach. Remember the ‘Bonac Against the World, Bub’ bumper stickers? Truer words were never spoken.”

Town Councilwoman Cate Rogers, who serves as the board’s liaison to the town’s Wildlife Management Advisory Committee, said she believes there’s been quite a bit of misinformation about the town’s goals, on both sides of the issue.

“Hunting is a tradition, and it is important for the town to be consistent with the DEC,” she said. “We do regulate hunting now. This is not something new to the town.”

She added that the fact that hunting is a source of food for people is important to her. 

“For me, public safety and the risk to the public is my determining consideration,” she said. “I think this balances out all the interests and all the user groups in town.”

Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc added that the town manages 800 properties totaling 5,200 acres, and turkey hunting will be allowed on just 19 of those properties.

“There’s no reason why people who want to go out in the outdoors and don’t want any potential for interacting with hunters can’t do so,” he said. “It’s a very small percentage of town properties.”

“It’s important to be tolerant of differences among us and allow opportunities for everyone to express their beliefs and lifestyles as much as they can,” he added. 

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said that, while she appreciates the need to support historic hunting practices in the town, “this is a new season. It’s nothing we’re taking away from any of the hunters. I feel that May is a month to celebrate motheres and those who have died in service to our country. It’s a time to put our guns down, and I’d like to do that.”

Councilman David Lys said his daughter recently asked him her first-ever question about town government, and it was about the topic of turkey hunting — she had just received her hunting license and was hoping to go hunting on a church group trip.

Southampton Town does not allow small game hunting on its lands. The Southold Town Board agreed March 14 to allow turkey hunting on some of its lands. We’ll have more details as they become available. Representatives from Riverhead Town did not respond to a request for comment.

The DEC is allowing spring turkey hunting on several lands it manages in Suffolk County, including archery only access to the Calverton Pine Barrens, East Partlett Pine Barrens and Carmans River Pine Barrens state forests, and the Ridge Conservation Area. They are also allowing shotgun and archery hunting in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens and Henrys Hollow Pine Barrens state forests and the Westhampton Dwarf Pine Planes Preserve.

DEC cooperative areas at Barcelona Neck in the Northwest Woods, the David A. Sarnoff area in Riverside and the Otis Pike Preserve in Calverton will also allow shotgun and archery hunting, while the Kings Park Cooperative Hunting Area will allow archery only.

Archery hunting will also be allowed at DEC tidal wetlands properties at Fireplace Neck, Havens Point and Long Beach Bay. 

DEC-managed lands open to shotgun turkey hunting will be closed to other users from two hours before sunrise until noon throughout the season.

DEC-managed properties open to shotgun spring turkey hunting required entering a drawing and advance reservations before March 13, but archery only areas do not.

The DEC is urging hunters to bring birds to the Ridge Hunter Check Station at 484 Randall Road, Ridge, following their hunt so DEC staff can record biological data to help evaluate the season and population structure. Visiting the check station is voluntary, but harvested birds must be reported within 48 hours by phone at 1.866.426.3778) or via the DEC’s Game harvest reporting webpage at dec.ny.gov/outdoor/8316.html. For check station hours of operation, visit DEC’s Hunting on Long Island webpage or call the Region 1 Wildlife Office at 631.444.0310.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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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