East Hampton Town Board members didn’t hide their disappointment on Tuesday when an aerial count of the town’s deer population came back with a number that many agreed was too low to be true.
“In hindsight, we shouldn’t have spent the money,” said Councilwoman Sylvia Overby of the $13,000 survey. “It seemed like something that was a bad investment for us. Unless we can somehow or other use that [data] further along down the road.”
Board members offered comments at a work session on Tuesday during a presentation of the results by Town Planning Director Marguerite Wolffsohn. The flyover tallied 877 deer—a drastic difference from a 2006 count of 3,293 deer, possibly because a different method was used this time. Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who spearheaded the management plan and the aerial infrared survey, acknowledged that the result “wasn’t our expectation.”
The count is part of a larger townwide deer management plan. Based on the premise that the population is too large, the management plan includes suggestions such as increasing the number of parcels for hunting and having professionals cull the herd.
The flyover was conducted by Vision Air Research, based in Idaho. It took place in March and cost about $13,000, half of which the town has paid already, according to officials.
“I have no idea what the value of this survey is that we’ve paid half of,” said Supervisor Bill Wilkinson.
Mr. Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley questioned whether the town could actually know for a fact that the results were not accurate. They also called into question the purpose of the deer management plan.
“It is an absolutely wrong focus for us to assume we know the answer, and we’re going to manipulate the data to form the answer,” said Ms. Quigley.
Ms. Wolffsohn said there’s no way to get an actual census of the deer. She offered other data, including increasing harvest numbers—figures that represent how many deer are killed by hunters. Those numbers have been on the rise since 1990, from 70 killed that year to 525 in 2012.
Ms. Wolffsohn also pointed to environmental damage and the need to manage the deer to preserve biodiversity in the town. She displayed photos of a forest that’s been overbrowsed, and said certain bird populations have declined because of a loss of that habitat.
Members of the audience also chimed in. Terry O’Riordan of the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance said the Town Board shouldn’t discount the survey entirely, because it provides a geographical breakdown of where the most deer are located. Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc and Ms. Wolffsohn also made the same point.
Zachary Cohen, chairman of the town’s Nature Preserve Committee, said most organizations don’t attempt to count deer. “You’d be surprised—I was surprised—at how many state organizations actually don’t even try to estimate,” he said. “They just only use indices.”