Plan for Deer Aired

Feds counsel ‘sharpshooters,’ sterilization
Durell Godfrey

    The Village of East Hampton will move quickly to control its population of white-tailed deer, which the mayor called “epidemic” on Monday afternoon, and a threat to human health and safety.

    This was the conclusion reached at a lively and sometimes tense meeting at which representatives of the Long Island Farm Bureau and the United States Department of Agriculture presented Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. and members of the village board with a management plan that would include killing and sterilizing deer over a span of at least three years.

    Joseph Gergela, the executive director of the farm bureau, a trade organization, cited Lyme disease and vehicle collisions, as well as a survey his group conducted 10 years ago that he said assessed annual damage to crops at $3 billion to $5 billion, to argue for such a program. The farm bureau has applied for a state grant with which, he said, “We are proposing to cull the herd where the hottest spots are, where the most damage is, economic and otherwise.”

    Mr. Gergela said he had met with East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who attended Monday’s meeting, and examined the town’s deer management plan. “We’re not here to say we want to replace the plan developed locally over the last couple years. We want to have you work with us where appropriate so we can address the problem,” Mr. Gergela said. As part of the plan, venison would be donated to food banks throughout Long Island. “This is a public resource of the people of this state,” Mr. Gergela said. “The deer are owned by the people of the state.”

    Ron Delsener, a concert promoter and activist for animal rights who lives in East Hampton, took exception to that conclusion. “It’s all rubbish,” he said. “Can these people here see results of the survey you talked about? What you say, you have to back it up.”

    Citing an article by Larry Penny in last week’s Star, Mr. Delsener disputed assertions that deer, as a carrier of ticks, are to blame for Lyme disease in humans. Mr. Penny, formerly the town’s director of natural resources, reported that he had found no ticks at all in a search of known tick-infested areas on the South Fork. Deer are “beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with them,” Mr. Delsener said.

    “You don’t represent the government,” Mr. Gergela replied testily. “You have a voice, like any other citizen. Elected officials are here to represent the public interest, and they have to balance everybody’s point of view. People are entitled to their own opinion, not their own facts.”

    Bill Crain of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife implored village officials to understand that “deer have emotions, social lives, and deserve our respect.” He pleaded that people not jump to conclusions about the transmission of Lyme disease. Research, he said, “indicates probably no correlation between deer and Lyme. The main culprit is the white-footed mouse. Ticks will find other hosts. . . . If we get into panic mode, it will divert us from doing realistic things.”

    Actions based on science, Mr. Crain said, would include an immediate cessation in the hunting of turkeys — a primary predator of ticks — and deployment of four-poster bait stations, a device that applies an approved tickicide to a deer’s head and neck as it feeds on corn.

    Mr. Crain invited farm bureau officials to meet with his group to discuss humane approaches to crop damage, “rather than killing, rather than sterilizing. . . . I urge everyone keep cool heads and respect our fellow beings. . . . We need a little humility.”

    The mayor asked Mr. Crain if he would be receptive to a plan that would include killing deer along with sterilization. Mr. Crain replied that he would not. “We wouldn’t cull humans!” he exclaimed, suggesting instead a slow-driving campaign and roadside reflectors — “realistic approaches that will not involve violence.”

    Residents, some representing groups including the Village Preservation Society and the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance, spoke in favor of culling and sterilization, some citing their own history with Lyme disease and babesiosis, a malaria-like illness, as well as the cost of treatment. But others criticized the presumption of causality between the deer population and these illnesses. Frustration mounted as speakers decried what they called, on one hand, a lack of action by the town and village, and on the other, a needless and ineffective slaughter.

    “One of the options that we have explored and feel the village would be well advised to employ is a deer sterilization program, because as has been voiced here so many times, nothing is happening,” said Kathleen Cunningham, speaking for the Village Preservation Society. “I recognize and respect the perspective of people who are not hunters, but the fact of the matter is, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is the organization legally responsible for permitting any handling of wildlife.” The D.E.C.’s approach to deer management, she noted, “is to cull, or kill, the deer.” 

    In addition to public health, she said, “People are erecting fences to protect their property, which is their right, but it’s really changing the village. It’s changing the character of our neighborhood.”

    “The unfortunate reality is, we have a situation that needs immediate attention and are tying to draw some consensus,” Mr. Rickenbach said.

    Again, Mr. Delsener broke in. “You are uninformed, Mr. Mayor. If you kill every living thing, you’re [still] going to have ticks. That’s your problem: You want to kill deer! Hunting season is coming — is that why?”

    He and Mr. Crain both noted that the D.E.C. has approved a plan submitted by the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson, set to commence this winter, under which does will be captured, tranquilized, injected with a contraceptive, tagged, and released. The plan does not include culling.

    Allen Gosser, assistant state director of the U.S.D.A.’s Wildlife Services Department, then addressed the room. Stating that his department has a program to reduce the deer population on the East End, he said that “Joe [Gergela] and I are here today to let the village know about the proposal, and if the village would like to be part of this larger plan, that would be great.” The plan, he said, includes the use of sharpshooters with “tools not available to the average hunter,” as well as baiting and thermal-imaging cameras.

    “We’d like the village to consider being part of our deer project,” he said.

    Surgical sterilization and four-poster bait stations could be included in the program, Mr. Gosser said.

    Mr. Gergela estimated the program would cost the village $15,000; $25,000 for the town. “We’re proposing to do this next winter, starting in February if we can get it done by then, only to hit the real problem spots identified by each municipality.” About 10 municipalities have signed on, he said.

    Joan Osborne, a village resident, suggested that residents could be asked in a referendum whether to fund such a program for 5 to 10 years. “I have every hope and trust that they would,” she said. “I’d appreciate the village do something about this situation.”

    Mr. Stanzione said the town’s next budget will include funding for a deer-management coordinator, who would work with a permanent deer-management advisory committee. Both culling and nonlethal alternatives, such as “speed management” of motorists, he said, are included in the town’s plan.

    “We tried to make it comprehensive. We tried to make everyone happy. I do not have the support of Mr. Crain, but I tried very hard,” Mr. Stanzione said.

    “That is not how I perceive it,” said Mr. Crain.

    Mayor Rickenbach ended the meeting with a promise that the board would begin deliberations as soon as today. “We have to take the bull by the horns, so to speak,” he said.