Taking Aim at Deer

A spike in deer populations in the eastern United States has come at the same time as sharp increases in the type and number of disease-carrying ticks

    Online petitions and a well-funded legal challenge aside, South Fork local officials who are moving toward large-scale killing of deer, politely called culling, have a difficult time ahead. Leadership is never easy when policy gets mixed up in emotion, and wildlife management is one of the most emotional aspects of government. Few other issues draw as much attention and heat from the public, making the job of deciding how to proceed fraught with tension from the start. But rational, dispassionate policy-making must be foremost in such instances. The key for officials is studying precedents in other communities and what science says.

    The problems are well understood. A spike in deer populations in the eastern United States has come at the same time as sharp increases in the type and number of disease-carrying ticks. Deer cause huge and nearly unmeasurable damage to landscaping and crops. Those struck by vehicles often meet terrible, painful deaths, which are heart-wrenching for us. Deer have radically altered the forest understory in many places, leading to habitat loss for other native species, such as songbirds and small mammals, and threatening biodiversity.

    Deer are not the only large animals for which aggressive control measures are being taken. Black bears as nearby as suburban New Jersey have adapted to life close to people and are being targeted by wildlife managers. Time magazine featured a cover story this month about what it called America’s “pest problem.” Expanded hunting and professional harvests have been pursued from Florida to California. Closer to home, Block Island officials recently voted to hire sharpshooters to reduce the deer herd from 800 to 100 individuals, according to low estimates. The target there is to maintain the deer population at 10 to 15 per square mile.

    No one knows for sure precisely how many deer there are on the South Fork, and their distribution is not in even numbers across the island. The Town of East Hampton’s two surveys came in with widely disparate numbers — 877 in a March aerial study and 3,293 in a 2006 roadside count. Estimates of the density in East Hampton Town are all over the map, but could be as high as 100 per square mile. Though a clearer total should be known before a long-term program is undertaken, by all appearances there are just too many deer. There are few residents who have not at one time or another struck a deer on the road or had someone in the family touched by tick-borne illness. And now there is a rising count of people with a serious and life-threatening allergy to red meat caused by the bite of the lone star tick.

    Those opposed to hunting claim there is no valid link between deer and ticks, but scientific studies say otherwise. Large, warm-blooded hosts such as deer have been clearly implicated in this regard — one must not overlook that it is the deer tick that carries Lyme disease as well as babesiosis, ehrlichia, and borrelia. True, the rodents that larval ticks first feed on are believed to be the reservoirs for the illness-causing spirochetes, but it is undisputable that concentrations of all tick varieties have soared along with the deer’s numbers.

    A public health crisis is under way, with deer clearly implicated. Research has demonstrated that maintaining deer at 8 to 12 per square mile essentially eliminates ticks and the diseases in humans. Deer birth control has not proven to be an adequate alternative to hunting. Nor does applying pesticides at feeding stations solve the problems of habitat devastation and deer-vehicle collisions. It is also not acceptable for residents to have to avoid the woods and wild places for fear of ticks in other than the coldest months.

    Those passionately opposed to the planned killing appear to overlook the fact that the present environment is one in which nature’s balance has been overturned by centuries of human presence. In the case of deer and other highly adaptable wildlife, there still is no substitute for lethal management.