As opponents of a planned reduction in the local deer population rallied at Hook Mill in East Hampton Village on Saturday, a basic question hovered unasked: Just how their numbers were allowed to grow unchecked and why the government entity most responsible by law and tradition for wildlife management in New York State has been all but absent.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is the state agency whose mission includes setting hunting seasons and limits and enforcing a range of related regulations. But its involvement in Long Island’s deer problem has been negligible. Its commissioner, Joe Martens, should answer for allowing the situation to reach a perceived crisis level, at least in the downstate region. Taking care of the state’s wildlife is the D.E.C.’s job, after all. Why it hasn’t in this regard must be examined.
Without state leadership, eastern Long Island’s towns and villages have been forced to go it alone, undertaking patchwork studies and turning to the federal government for help. The East Hampton Town Department of Natural Resources, for example, has only four staff members; no one on the East Hampton Village staff can be considered a wildlife expert.
Digging deeper, though, the fault for allowing the deer population to grow beyond safe limits cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the D.E.C. bureaucracy. Its portfolio is enormous, including hazardous waste, pollution, marine and freshwater resources, parks and campsites, mining, and hydraulic fracturing, or at least studying fracking’s potential harm. There are more than 1,900 D.E.C. facilities and 4.4 million acres of land under the agency’s control. And this is on a budget of just under $900 million for the current fiscal year — about the same as that allotted by the City of New York for environmental quality in its far-smaller geographic area. It is little surprise then that suburban deer management could have fallen through the cracks.
In laying out this week the state budget for the coming year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not propose any significant increases for the D.E.C. This is unfortunate, as New York’s reputation as an environmental leader has slipped in recent decades as the challenges have risen. In reaction to the governor’s State of the State address earlier this month, the New York League of Conservation Voters complained about what it saw as a missed opportunity, given anticipated state surpluses.
Albany must regain its leadership role on conservation and sensible, science-driven wildlife management, including for deer. If increasing funding to the D.E.C. is what it will take, all sides should be in support.