Sagaponack Looks To Thin Deer Herd With Sharpshooters

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The Village of Sagaponack and some of its largest landowners are planning to join East Hampton Village in hiring federal government hunters to kill hundreds of deer in its fields to thin the size of the wild herd, which has become an expensive nuisance for farmers and residents.

The village last week approved spending up to $15,000 to pay for federal “sharpshooters” to kill hundreds of deer at night on village property, an effort that is also expected to be extended to land owned by several farmers in the village.

The plan for the hunt, which would take place in February and March, calls for teams of specially certified shooters working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use rifles, night-vision equipment and gun silencers to kill dozens of deer each night on property in the village. The carcasses of the deer would be collected and removed by the hunters each night and delivered to processors to be butchered for venison that could be donated to area food pantries.

A spokesperson for the USDA, Carol Bannerman, said that the hunters work in teams of three men: one with a gun, one acting as a spotter and the other a driver/assistant. All the hunters are USDA employees, and most are biologists or specialists and are given rigorous special safety and training on conducting the hunts, Ms. Bannerman said.

The culling effort must still win approval from the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The discharging of rifles is illegal on Long Island for the general public, as is the use of night-vision scopes, bait and silencers for hunting—but the government hunters would be exempt from such limitations.

The Village of North Haven has conducted herd-thinning hunts twice in the last two decades, and East Hampton Village recently resolved to contract with the USDA hunters as well.

The hunts would be conducted from vehicles, stationary stands and possibly on horseback. The hunters will use piles of food, or bait, to attract deer within shooting range. The hunters will shoot only female deer so as not to upset local deer hunters by taking bucks prized as trophies.

“In general, when we do these types of operations, the first element is that the work be done safely, then humanely, and then effectively,” Ms. Bannerman said. “We have done this in a number of cities and suburban areas and national parks, and we have never had a public injury or accident. These are firearms experts, and safety is their primary goal, and then keeping the hunt as humane as possible.”

Nonetheless, the hunt is already drawing criticism from some residents. Wendy Chamberlain, a Bridgehampton resident who works as a wildlife rehabilitator, said that the hunts will result in “unbelievable carnage” and should be a concern for area residents regardless of the safety precautions.

“The idea that they’re going to be driving around in these neighborhoods at night is terrifying,” she said. “The margin of error is zero, and the potential for an accident is high.”

Ms. Chamberlain, who attended a meeting of USDA hunters and Sagaponack landowners last week, said the hunters also referred to using large nets to capture a group of deer and then execute them at close range.

Ms. Chamberlain said that wildlife biologists from Tufts University are in the final stages of drafting a comprehensive plan for municipalities and land owners to thin deer herds more humanely than hunts. She called the use of “USDA hit squads” ineffective and inhumane, regardless of the quickness of the kills.

But farmers say that the damage reaped on their crops has taken a substantial bite, literally, out of already narrow profit margins.

“It’s gotten to the point where if you don’t have a deer fence around a crop, it’s almost impossible to make a profit,” farmer Dean Foster, whose mother is the village’s deputy mayor, said while driving a tractor through one of his fields this week. “It used to be they would eat around the outside of the corn field, and you’d have some loss but nothing too bad. Now, they’re living inside the corn, and I get in my combine and say, ‘Where did it go?’ I’ve got four of them in front of me right now. They’re not scared of us anymore. They’re like rats.”

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