U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters are hunting deer in Southold this week, to the relief of some and to the horror of others.
When, or if, they will come to Southampton Town—one of three municipalities where permits to conduct a cull have been sought by individual property owners—remains an open question.
The cull, which is part of the Long Island Farm Bureau project that was proposed as a five-town deer cull, has been a hot-button issue for East End towns for months.
Pitched last fall 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, it has received much criticism from animal advocates and deer hunters alike.
The Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island filed a lawsuit to block the Long Island Farm Bureau and the USDA from going forward, but after the restraining order was thrown out by a judge last week, Southold Town and the USDA proceeded in hopes of solving the problems officials see stemming from the deer population.
Since the cull began early last week, private properties in Southold Town have played host to these sharpshooters who typically come in teams of three: one with a gun, one acting as a spotter, and the third serving as 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, according to Carol Bannerman, a spokesperson for the USDA.
While most of the cull has taken place on privately owned land so far, Ms. Bannerman said there may be some public properties that will be targeted. She didn’t have a total number of properties on which the cull is happening. She said, however, that sharpshooters are still out in the field and will be until early April.
“We wouldn’t be there if there were not some sort of damage being done,” she said on Monday. “Part of the Wildlife Management profession is tasked with the very narrow area of assisting where there has been damage done to human health and safety, agriculture, property, or natural resources. On the East End, we see aspects of all of those in the deer population.”
In January, it looked as if East Hampton Town and Village were poised to participate in the cull, but it wasn’t until East Hampton Town was issued a temporary restraining order, barring it from completing and implementing a contract with the Long Island Farm Bureau and the USDA that the town backed out. Just a few days later, the Village of East Hampton, which had been supportive of the cull, decided to opt out this year as well.
While Southampton Town had not expressed an interest in joining the cull, officials of the Village of Sagaponack said they would be interested if the both towns agreed to participate. Since they did not, Sagaponack dropped out as well.
With the South Fork governments out, farmers and private land owners were left to apply for DEC permits on their own to participate in the cull—and property owners in Sagaponack are said to be among the applicants.
So far, the Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a total of 12 Deer Damage Permits for the East End deer cull, from Riverhead to Southold and Southampton, and six of them are pending. The permits are valid from February 1 through April 31, according to Aphrodite Montalvo, a DEC spokeswoman.
She said she could not comment further because the DEC has no say in the deer cull except to issue deer damage permits.
Ms. Bannerman said that the USDA does not give out information about the specific locations of USDA sharpshooters for safety purposes, and she didn’t know where on the South Fork the sharpshooters are planned to go.
Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela was not in the office on Friday or Monday afternoon for comment, either. He has steadfastly refused to respond to requests seeking comment on the Farm Bureau’s involvement in the cull.
Still hopeful to change things, anti-cull advocates said on Friday they were upset about how easily the cull went through and the lack of communication from government officials and the Long Island Farm Bureau.
“I’ve never seen such cloak-and-dagger behavior from officials from government agencies. It’s scary,” said Wendy Chamberlin, the president of the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island on Friday. She said the Long Island Farm Bureau should be answering questions. “It’s a message of arrogance and entitlement beyond anything I ever experienced. They don’t feel like they are answerable to anyone. They are a very small, secretive group that represents a small group of interests.”
Ms. Chamberlin said their loss in court was not expected, especially so quickly. “We were all completely knocked over,” she said. “It seems the judge so summarily dismissed our case and didn’t wait for anything from the respondents. The sleight of hand … we were flabbergasted.”
Michael Tessitore, the founder of Hunters for Deer, based in East Quogue, said the timing was swift and that the hunters he associates with have been on the lookout since early last week.
“Friday was our court date, and Tuesday in Southold Town they started baiting and the USDA started scouting properties and setting up tree stands,” he said on Friday. “A couple of my guys found a stand at a property … and last night a couple of my members saw a USDA truck parked at a spot. A girl went in at 3 a.m. wearing all black and wearing a nice little assault rifle.”
Other activists have gone as far as to propose a boycott of Southold wineries and farms that support the cull. A Facebook page has sprung up on the internet, Boycott Southold Wine.
Ms. Chamberlin said on Monday that the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island was still working to fight the cull by filing an injunction against the ruling.
“It’s like they’re handing out permits like candy to farmers from all over, including to farmers in Sagaponack,” she said. “We are getting calls every day from people in a state of panic, saying, ‘They’re on our street, we saw the trucks going by—what we do?’ There’s a state of hysteria. This is really criminal.”