Protestors go on hunger strike

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January’s shotgun deer hunting season began Monday at sunrise and sparked a heated debate between wildlife activists and hunters in front of Town Hall later that morning.

Bill and Ellen Crain of Montauk, leaders of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, had gathered with their supporters to begin a three-day hunger strike to protest the Town Board’s decision last summer to add new properties to the list of town lands open to hunting, the biggest of which include the East Hampton airport property in Wainscott, the Grace Estate in Northwest and Grassy Hollow Preserve in Northwest.

“We’re extremely disappointed in the Town Board for not living up to their promise to take action on behalf of wildlife,” Ellen Crain said. She noted that her group had provided research on alternatives to hunting that she claimed would help control or limit the deer population, including roadside reflectors to reduce auto-deer collisions and a contraceptive program.

Mrs. Crain said town officials had promised to support a pilot deer contraception project and an expanded study of the effectiveness of roadside reflectors in reducing vehicle/deer collision. A pilot project near the intersection on Stephen Hands Path with Route 114, Mrs. Crain said, had demonstrated the reflectors were very effective in reducing vehicle-deer collisions. From January 17 until June 30, 2008, there were no deer killed within the test site, while 9 deer were killed elsewhere on Stephen Hands Path.

Also, she said, the Town Board had initially postponed its vote to expand hunting grounds, and then held it in a summer session without prior announcement. The Town Board also, she charged, “ignored” the East Hampton Group for Wildlife’s petition against the expansion of hunting, which included 450 signatures.

But the Crains and their supporters got some back talk on Monday, after they began picketing in front of Town Hall.

“Such alternatives are not effective and a waste of money,” said Hugh Miles, a 72-year-old deer hunter from Springs. “Hunting balances nature.”

Burton Prince, a commercial fisherman, pulled up in his pick-up and leapt out to see what the protest was about.

“Is anyone wearing leather?” he asked, circling the crowd. “Do any of you eat meat?”

The protesters responded that they were vegetarians.

“Look,” Mr. Prince said, “I hunt and fish to feed my family. Last night we had venison tacos.” Mr. Prince said he had shot four deer during the bow hunting season this fall and has all the meat he needs so is not taking part in the shotgun season now underway.

In Suffolk County, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allows two deer hunting seasons—bow hunting from October 1 until December 31 and shotgun hunting between January 5 and January 30, only on weekdays. To hunt with a shotgun on town-owned lands, hunters first must obtain the landowner’s endorsement—a permission slip from the town—in order to get their state hunting licenses. Hunters also must register for a lottery of hunting times and locations and indicate what property they would like to hunt. The goal is to restrict the amount of hunters on each property at any given time. By state law, only one hunter is allowed per acre.

On July 17, 2008, the Town Board added seven parcels to the existing list of 90 properties on which hunting, either bow or shotgun or both, is permitted. Shotgun hunting, using slugs, was allowed on five of the new parcels.

Out of the five shotgun properties where hunting is allowed this month, hunters applied for permits to use only two of them. A total of 19 permits were given for two properties in the Six Pole Highway area in Wainscott, according to Town Clerk Fred Overton. No one has permits to hunt the other new grounds, including two parcels in Miller’s Ground and the Highview Drive Reserved Woodland, also all in Wainscott.

According to the DEC, there are approximately 360 residents in East Hampton with sporting licenses that include big game for the 2008/2009 season, although that number might go up as the season continues. The Town Clerk’s office has thus far given out 80 permits for hunters who want to hunt on town-owned lands.

Expanding the list of lands that are open for hunting does not mean more deer will be shot than in previous years, commented Supervisor Bill McGintee. “I don’t think there’s a nexus between expanding hunting grounds and the amount of hunting that goes on,” he said. “I don’t think the concept is that we open more land and hunting increases. There’s just more property to hunt, but not an increase in the hunt count.”

Councilman Brad Loewen is the liaison to the Nature Preserve Committee, which advised the Town Board to expand the hunting grounds. Mr. Loewen himself stopped hunting in 1994, he said, and added there are far fewer hunters now than there used to be. But he supported the expansion as one way for residents to enjoy town lands.

“Hunting in East Hampton is a historic and traditional use of town property,” he said. “It’s a legal form of recreation—some people prefer to hunt rather than, for example, play softball.”

To the Crains, killing deer is criminal. “What we’ve done to our fellow creatures on this planet is abysmal,” Mr. Crain said. “Because the defenseless animals cannot speak on their behalf, it’s up to people to call attention to their plight.”

During 2007, the last year for which a count is available, 2,159 deer were taken in both the archery and shotgun season in Suffolk County and 390 of those were taken in East Hampton, according to the DEC. In 2007, the Crains hired an outside consultant, Frank Verret of Wildlife Biometrics, to do a deer count and he found there were approximately 3,300 deer in the woods and fields of East Hampton Town.

While 17 people arrived on the Town Hall lawn Monday to express their solidarity with the Crains, only Bill, Ellen and the vice president of their organization, Ivonne O’Neill, pledged a complete fast, consuming only water, from Sunday at 7 p.m. until Thursday morning.

The Crains are part-time residents of Montauk and have a home in the city. Mr. Crain is a psychology professor at the City University of New York and Ms. Crain is a pediatrician. They started their organization in 2004. They are both vegetarians. In the summers, they lead a protest of the shark hunting tournaments that are a mainstay of the Montauk charter business.

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