Southold, N.Y. — A major push to trim deer numbers on eastern Long Island’s has targeted as many as 3,000 whitetails this winter.
The deer cull, if initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the face of some recent public opposition, would be the largest federal deer removal program in the history of New York state.
And, say public officials, it’s needed to control a growing whitetail population estimated at up to 35,000 on the East End and in the town of Brookhaven.
“We’re not talking about wildlife management anymore,” said Southold Supervisor Scott Russell. “We’re talking about pest control.”
The Long Island Farm Bureau and USDA’s Wildlife Services program were hammering out a final agreement for the cull, which would begin in February and likely last into mid-March.
Sharpshooters would shoot the deer at night. The effort would focus on does and would, in some highly populated areas, involve the use of “drop nets” to capture and then shoot the deer.
Venison from the culled deer would be donated to local food pantries.
USDA’s Allen Gosser, assistant director of the program, said a major effort is what’s needed to address the whitetail problem on Long Island’s East End.
“For it to have any kind of success, it has to be large-scale like this,” he told Long Island Newsday. “They’re beautiful creatures, but over a period of time they become despots. It would be nice to get them back to cherished status again.”
Several municipalities – including Southold, Brookhaven and East Hampton town and village and Sagaponack – have budgeted funds to help cover the estimated $300,000 cost of the project. Farm Bureau officials are also looking at up to $200,000 from the state to pay for the effort.
Gosser said the cull could, with the late-winter start, remove between 2,000-3,000 whitetails. He said the cull should continue for three years to keep whitetail numbers in check.
In addition to the sharpshooter effort, East End officials are pushing for state legislation that would allow bowhunters a chance to assist in controlling deer numbers. Current law prohibits hunters from firing shots from either gun or bow within 500 feet of a dwelling. DEC has been pushing for loosened restrictions for bowhunters, allowing them to shoot within 150 feet of a building to allow for better access to hunt deer.
In Southold, officials have urged residents to allow bowhunters on their properties and have even considered reimbursing bowhunters for their arrows.
East End and Brookhaven residents say the out-of-control whitetail population is responsible for numerous deer-vehicle collisions, the spread of Lyme disease and the destruction of crops, gardens and shrubbery.
The Long Island Farm Bureau estimates that deer-related crop damage costs growers as much as $3 million a year, primarily in damage to apple orchards and vineyards.
“Whether people like it or not, we need to take out a few deer,” Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela told Newsday.
DEC officials have said the highest deer densities are seen in Brookhaven and the five East End towns. But whitetails have in recent years expanded their range on Long Island west into Nassau County and even into Queens.
Early on, there seemed to be little opposition to the proposed cull. A forum in Southold attracted about 250 residents, most of whom complained about the deer. That surprised Gosser, who said he had “never been to a meeting where there was practically no opposition to an idea like this.”
But in recent weeks anti-hunting activists have, as usually happens in areas where deer culls are planned, mobilized in opposition to what they label a “slaughter.”
Bill Crain, president of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, said deer have become “a convenient scapegoat.” Crain and his wife have for the past fours years held hunger strikes as the January special Suffolk County firearms deer season begins.
A petition on the website Change.org titled, “Stop Long Island Farm Bureau/USDA Stealth Plan to Brutally Slaughter 5,000 East End Deer” had about 2,000 signatures as of earlier this month.
And animal rights activist Ron Delsener, who has a house in East Hampton, has instructed a New York City law firm to pursue legal action to halt the cull.
East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach has called the deer issue a “public health crisis” and told the East Hampton Star the cull is needed.
“It’s reached epidemic proportions,” he said. “All things considered, we feel we are taking the necessary first step.”