During the hearing on the proposed management of the white-tailed deer population in East Hampton last Thursday night at Town Hall, the majority of speakers told town board members that a major culling of the herd was necessary in order to control Lyme disease, abate the destruction of forest understory, reduce the number of deer-car collisions, and save the animals the misery of starvation.
The town’s deer management working group was created in the wake of Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s deer summit held in February 2010. The group includes a wide variety of interested parties including hunters, wildlife scientists, residents whose gardens have become salad bars, state lawmakers, as well as advocates for non-lethal solutions to overpopulation.
The draft report submitted for public comment last Thursday seeks to develop a management plan — the first of its kind in the state — to find short-term as well as long-term and compassionate solutions to a deer problem that members say has reached “an emergency level.”
The draft closely follows the management policy of the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Assuming the plan is approved — after a review that uses the dictates of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, SEQRA — it will become part of East Hampton’s comprehensive plan. Town agencies have already begun looking into opening more preserved land to hunters, as well as lengthening hunting seasons for both bow and gun hunting. The question of permitting nonresident hunters to cull deer was also discussed during the hearing.
Deborah Klughers, an East Hampton Town Trustee and member of the East Hampton Sportsman’s Alliance, said the latter organization would favor allowing nonresident guests of town residents to hunt, rather than opening lands to unrelated nonresidents. Ms. Klughers suggested the working group reach out to the D.E.C.’s deer management assistance program “to help target specific areas.”
While a number of speakers justified a major reduction in the deer population as a means to eliminate the largest tick-carrying host, others spoke about the damage that deer are doing to young saplings and bushes that represent forage and habitat for other animals. Robert Wick of East Hampton said that bird habitat has been especially impacted.
Joanne Goldberg echoed a number of speakers in saying that deer fencing meant to protect lawns and gardens is pushing deer out of their native habitat and into the roads, an opinion shared by hunters including Hugh Miles. Mr. Miles and others said that deer — with the help of foraging wild turkeys — had eaten their way through wooded areas and were now feeding on the margins. “The woods are barren,” he said.
Michael Dickerson of Old Northwest Road in East Hampton blamed legal and illegal clearing of land for “the destruction of the ecosystem.” He said he believed the deer herd was shrinking as a result. He too advised the board that all mammals in our area play hosts to ticks. He said a management plan should also force the Ordinance Enforcement Department to crack down on clearing.
Donald Lahman from Northwest Landing in East Hampton, a hunter for over 60 years as well as an arborist, said the deer population is actually declining while the human population was increasing. The herd’s feeding is degrading the town’s preserved lands, he said. “Deer are adaptable, but are their own worst enemy,” he said, adding that between roadkill, degraded habitat, and exclusion fencing, “it’s lose, lose for the white tails — humans 10, deer 0.”
“The Third World is laughing at us,” said Joan Palumbo of Montauk. With Lyme disease so prevalent, she favors culling the herd. “Why not have vending machines for Doxy?” she said, meaning doxicycline, an antibiotic often used to treat the tick-borne illness.
Carl Reimerdes of Montauk talked about the deer “plague,” and the cost of tick diseases, loss of undergrowth, car damage, and injury. He said the deer population is doubling every three years given the recent light winters, with more does giving birth to twins. “Let’s cull now.”
Ilissa Meyer criticized the draft report for not focusing more on Lyme Disease. In fact she said the plan would increase the incidence of the illness once known as Montauk knee. “Ticks don’t die if this one host is dead.”
Ellen Crain, speaking for the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, agreed. “Deer are not responsible for Lyme Disease. Lyme is not an acceptable reason. Deer-vehicle accidents are blamed on deer instead of the increase in the number of vehicles, and speed.” Ms. Crain called the draft plan “flawed and unethical,” and questioned the draft’s use of the word “emergency” to describe the situation.
With some saying the deer herd is growing, and others saying it is shrinking, Jeremy Samuelson, representing the Concerned Citizens of Montauk environmental group, said the first step should be to count the number of deer, get a baseline estimate, “then turn it over to wildlife biologists” to get “a detailed analysis of the carrying capacity of each area, migratory patterns, etc.” Mr. Samuelson recommended that the town’s budget include a line item to pay for a scientist to oversee the management plan.
But, Irene Huff, who lives in the Georgica Pond community, strenuously disagreed. “It’s outrageous to spend any more money on study. They are all around us. It’s evident. You should take immediate action.”
Christine Ganitsch of East Hampton told the board about what she said was a successful culling project that was followed up with a program designed to lower the deer birthrate by giving trapped does an injected contraceptive. The culling-contraception program took place in Bernards Township in New Jersey. Ms. Ganitsch said the local herd and vehicle-car accidents were reduced by 50 percent.
A number of speakers encouraged the board to approve the proposed management plan with an approach that mirrored the one described by Ms. Ganitsch — a cull using professional hunters followed by a program of contraception.
The trustees’ Ms. Klughers chided authors of the management plan for mentioning the jurisdiction of her board in the report, while not attempting to obtain an official opinion from the trustees. Town board members agreed with Councilwoman Sylvia Overby’s suggestion that the period for public comment on the draft plan be extended until the trustees could weigh in.