Hunting for deer control


Responding to calls from across Southold to get the burgeoning deer population under control, the Town Board this week created a deer-management task force and directed it to consider all options, including those within the town's control and others requiring state legislation.

Tuesday's Town Board vote came six days after residents filled the board's meeting room during a Sept. 16 deer-management forum. A number of potential deer-control methods, such as expanding hunting opportunities or injecting the animals with contraceptives, were aired during an emotional debate.

But hunters and self-proclaimed "Bambi lovers" alike agreed it is virtually impossible to bring down deer numbers effectively with the existing methods.

"This is not just a Southold Town problem, this is a Long Island regional problem and over the years it has gotten worse," said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, one of the forum's panelists. "The time has come to develop a comprehensive plan."

The exploding deer population has caused a variety of problems, including damage to farm crops estimated by Mr. Gergela at $5 million a year, a rise in deer/motor vehicle accidents and the spread of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease.

Michael Clark, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said help is needed from Albany. The effectiveness of having hunters thin the herd is greatly diminished by the state's restriction against discharging a firearm within 500 feet of a house. With so many homes ringing open lands and farm fields and so many of the 500-foot circles overlapping, objections from a single property owner can leave most of the land off limits.

Some states have no such restrictions, said Mr. Clark, who called for a 200-foot limit.

Mr. Clark also cited the need for opening up more public lands to hunting, permitting the use of crossbows and trapping deer. Trapping would involve fence-like structures, not steel-jaw leg-hold traps.

The Town Board's options include establishing a no-cost deer carcass disposal program at the Cutchogue waste transfer station. Throughout the forum, hunters said the lack of disposal options limits the number of animals harvested.

"Nobody wants to dig a hole and bury it", said John Hass of Cutchogue, a hunter named Tuesday to the town's deer-management group.

The other members are Town Supervisor Scott Russell, Councilman Al Krupski, John Becht, John Rasweiler, John Rumpler IV and John Standish, the town's deputy public works director.

Mr. Rasweiler, a retired wildlife biologist, disputed the notion of leaving the deer alone because they were here first. The population problem is largely man-made, he said, and began when colonists cleared forests, which are poor deer habitats, and planted farms, which produce a steady supply of food.

He added that humans have also eliminated the natural predators, such as wolves, that kept the deer herds in check.

"The population has reached the point of doing very severe damage to the broader environment," he said Wednesday. "It's also reached the point of being environmentally unsustainable because the deer are outgrowing their food supply."

In a bad winter the deer will starve, he said. "It's not a pretty sight to see and to see it has had a profound impact on me that stays with me today," he said.

Mr. Rasweiler also argued that deer droppings washing into bathing and shellfishing area waters can raise bacteria counts to unhealthy levels. A single deer can consume up to eight pounds of vegetation and leave two pounds of waste each day.

Feeding deer only makes matters worse and it is illegal, said Tom Gadomski, the DEC conservation officer assigned to Southold Town. Putting out food leads to an increase in birth rates and, by drawing animals to a specific area, causes more deer/vehicle accidents.

Deer crowding around a feeding station also increases the risk of spreading disease, he added.

Several of Wednesday's speakers said contraception programs are not a practical alternative. Aside from the cost, up to $350 per animal, the deer are very mobile, which makes it difficult to dose a significant number of female deer. Mr. Clark added that contraception has not been shown to reduce the deer population. Current hunting practices also limit the number taken, with many hunters bypassing does and looking for trophy bucks with large racks.

In upstate areas, hunters are allowed to kill wild swine on sight, said Mr. Clark. He added, "We're almost about there here."

In the town's search for additional lands suitable for hunting, it is reaching out to the Peconic Land Trust, Councilman Krupski said.

Following that comment, one Southold woman said she would be willing to open up her lands if she can meet with a hunter and set a schedule.

"Where do you live?" a young man asked.

"Bayview," she said. "And I'll cook you dinner."