In response to the “epidemic” of deer overpopulation, East Hampton Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. announced last week that the village will participate in a five-town culling effort that could begin as early as February 2014 if all goes according to plan.
The Deer Project, as it is named, is a new proposal by the Long Island Farm Bureau to cull deer herds across the East End of Long Island. By hiring U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters and working with each community about where the deer hot spots are, the project aims to reduce deer damage to crops, reduce the risk of tick-borne diseases, and put a stop to the rise in car-versus-deer accidents, among other issues.
Mr. Rickenbach’s announcement upset those who attended the Village Board work session on Thursday, October 3, to speak against any plan to kill the deer, and angered them when he did not allow further comments on the issue.
Despite the opposition to culling, Mr. Rickenbach said it was the best way to solve the problem, even though he and Village Board members do not like the idea of killing deer.
“We felt it was a very necessary and vital first step to reducing the deer population,” he said on Monday. “This is the reality at this time, in this moment. We must seize the opportunity to move forward. We recognize that not all interested parties support this, but we feel it is necessary. As the process unfolds, we may look to additional remedies.”
According to Joe Gergela, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, approximately 600 Long Island farms, which produce $300 million in annual sales, lost crops due to deer in amounts ranging from $10 million to $15 million every year. Ten years ago, when the deer population on Long Island was just beginning to increase, he said, deer demolished approximately $3 million in crops.
He said that farmers see all kinds of plants ruined by the four-legged feeders, including trees that they scrape their antlers on and crops inside greenhouses that they infiltrate.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve tried to get some statutory changes to assist bow hunters, but there is a 500-foot requirement to stay away from people’s properties,” Mr. Gergela said. “We think that’s a little overkill. It takes a lot of land away from hunters, and we’ve tried to get that changed. We just can’t get it done for whatever reason.”
When Mr. Gergela obtained a state grant, he decided to put it to use and work with municipalities to hire sharpshooters to cull the herds, with permission from the DEC, in Brookhaven, Southold, Riverhead, Southampton, and East Hampton towns—if the towns and villages agree. Each town and village would contribute to the cost, approximately $300,800 for rural areas and $505,490 for urban and suburban areas. He said each town would pay $25,000, while each village would pay $15,000.
Mayor Rickenbach said he plans to fund the effort through a public-private partnership, hoping there will be interested private parties willing to contribute.
After each community identifies deer hot spots and a population count is taken, sharpshooters—with both rifles and compound bows and arrows—would go in, with the okay from police departments, and take down deer, staying at least 500 feet from buildings or homes. The shooting would likely occur at night to “minimize the impact on citizens and maximize the efficacy of technology,” according to the proposal. Drop nets also could be used to capture deer, which would be immediately euthanized by a shot to the brain with a small caliber suppressed weapon, the proposal states.
“A lot of due diligence would occur before this gets going,” Mr. Gergela said. “We’re not suggesting we know East Hampton better than the people. We’re offering this as a community service, and we want to do our best to help farmers in East Hampton and the community.”
A stakeholders meeting of all interested municipalities and agencies is slated to happen once the federal government shutdown ends, he added, but he expects it to be sometime this month. The success and startup of the Deer Project depends on state approval.
Some people are less optimistic about the effect that culling the herd could have, not only on the deer population but on human residents.
Animal activist and member of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife Zelda Penzel said she is livid that the Village Board didn’t consider what factors she and others opposed to killing the deer presented at the village’s roundtable discussion in September.
“It’s obvious they don’t want to be confused by the facts,” she said on Thursday after the work session let out. “I came in with a ton of documents about how futile and ineffective deer killing is.”
Ms. Penzel pointed to a Humane Society report stating that culling can actually cause a “bounce back” in deer population, for several reasons: more twins and triplets are born, the rate of survival is higher, and the onset of sexual maturity is earlier when there are fewer deer and more food is available. Additionally, she said, the board’s decision was a “knee-jerk reaction,” and she likened the board’s response to the public outcry for deer management to giving up and giving in. “It’s like when you have a nagging mother and you finally say, ‘OK,’” she said. “If culling worked, why even be here today?”
Another member of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, Bob Silverstone, had prepared comments for the board as well, but was shut down along with Ms. Penzel when Mr. Rickenbach squashed the discussion.
“The Deer Project presents a clearly hunter-oriented attitude that only hunting can solve the problem,” he said in his prepared statement. “Non-lethal methods of deer management are mentioned only in passing. Clearly, a new count is required before any action is taken. Please remember that deer contraception works.”
Mr. Rickenbach said that the project would be the very first step in trying to deal with what he calls an epidemic.
“We’re very sympathetic and understanding of your concerns,” he said. “We must move ahead with the Long Island Farm Bureau and the USDA. Having said that, I say it with heavy heart—I’m extremely sensitive to those four-legged creatures. But they’re a public health hazard.”