East Hampton Town Deer Survey Results May Not Reflect True Population

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Results of a highly-anticipated aerial survey count of East Hampton Town’s deer population are in, and they initially caused Planning Director Marguerite Wolffsohn’s eyes to pop.

The count came in at 877 deer, a dramatic decline from the 3,293 deer that were tallied in 2006 by a different method, known as a roadside distance sampling, Ms. Wolffsohn said this week. She would not release the actual report, noting that it was still in draft form.

While she characterized the gut reaction at the difference in numbers as a “wow factor,” Ms. Wolffsohn explained that the number is not an accurate head count of the town’s entire deer population—rather it is an index figure that is more representative of a trend, she said. It’s virtually impossible to get a head count of the actual number of deer in the town, she said.

Various factors cloud the data, including vegetation that deer are shielded by, which prevents infrared technology from detecting their heat. Also, comparing the two different methods used to tally deer is like comparing “apples and oranges” she said.

“You don’t get a census,” Ms. Wolffsohn said. “The only way you can get a real census is if you get all the deer to stand on the beach and then count them.”

At the very end of last Thursday’s Town Board meeting, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said that the aerial survey results were in, but that they were being sent back for a recount because they were too low. Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said this week he had asked Ms. Wolffsohn for the results in early June. “She wrote back saying that’s the main reason it’s not ready—the numbers were less than we expected,” he said.

The number is a significant piece of the puzzle of the deer problem, noted Mr. Wilkinson. The East Hampton Town Board is currently considering a deer management plan that is based on the premise that there’s been an unhealthy explosion in the white-tailed deer population, and that population problem has given rise to a host of societal problems—increases in car-deer accidents, spikes in cases of tick-borne illnesses and over-browsing by the deer of the town’s forest.

The deer management plan, for which the Town Board held a public hearing last winter and has yet to adopt, would aim to reduce the deer population largely by professional culling. The plan also includes increasing hunting opportunities and working across state, county and town lines to come up with an effective deer management plan for lands owned by multiple jurisdictions. The plan is being spearheaded by Councilman Dominick Stanzione.

Mr. Wilkinson said he felt the town was led to believe it would have a “fairly accurate” count of the deer population following the aerial survey. He added that the disparity between the two numbers calls into question a professional cull, the most controversial element of the plan.

“Wouldn’t you say, ‘Wait a minute, wouldn’t you say a cull is overkill?’” Mr. Wilkinson noted.

“The question then becomes what is the number that we’re satisfied with and at what point in time do you change your current tactics of dealing with deer?” Mr. Wilkinson continued. “It certainly begs the question of maybe we’re fine currently, maybe we’re fine with the way we approach the deer population right now.”

The purpose of the flyover survey wasn’t to justify reducing the deer population, but rather to establish a baseline to track the effectiveness of a management/reduction program over the years, said Mr. Stanzione.

“I don’t necessarily believe that the purpose of the flyover was to validate stuff,” Mr. Stanzione said. “Was that the purpose? The purpose was to begin a set of metrics that we could measure the effectiveness of the program, not justify the program. I don’t think that we need objective proof that we have too many deer. I think what we needed was a methodology of measuring effectiveness.”

The flyover took place in March. The cost of the flyover was about $13,000, said both Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Wolffsohn. The Idaho company Vision Air Research conducted the flyover.

The reason Mr. Wilkinson didn’t get the numbers from the survey when asked was because there were initially some issues with the accuracy of the data the town received, explained Ms. Wolffsohn. She also added that while the aerial count was not an accurate head count, it does provide the town with useful information as to where the deer are concentrated, she said. They appear concentrated around the village and downtown areas—like Amagansett and East Hampton Village, she said. The fewest concentrations are in Springs, she said.

Ms. Wolffsohn also mentioned other statistics that she said painted a more complete picture of the number of deer in town. Harvest data, that is, data generated by hunters from the number of deer they kill, has been on the rise in East Hampton Town since 1990, she said. That figure has gone from 70 in 1990 to 525 deer killed in 2012.

Ms. Wolffsohn will present the deer survey results with an analysis of the numbers to the Town Board in coming weeks, she said.

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