Nature Notes: The Deer Conundrum

Animal control has always been somewhat of a problem in East Hampton and on the South Fork in general

    This story begins at the East Hampton Town Airport, circa 2000, while I was serving as the town’s natural resources director. The town had received a grant to construct a fence around the airport at no small cost to keep deer off the runways. A deer vs. plane collision spurred the town to take steps to prevent similar accidents in the future. The contractor put up a wonderful fence. Only one problem, the deer could walk down the road from either the north or the south and enter the airport at their leisure the way vehicles and people do.

    I was familiar with the effective cattle guard grates placed on many roads in California and various other western states, including the ones on Highway 1, the main coastal artery running from California’s border with Mexico on the south to its border with Oregon on the north.

    I priced them out. A Utah company built reinforced ones for roads at a cost of around $15,000, not counting shipping. This seemed a reasonable cost, as the fence itself cost nearly $500,000. Two cattle guards might prevent deer from entering at will.

    The town superintendent of highways at the time gave me a loud “no,” worried about the possibility of pedestrian and bicycle accidents that might occur and the expensive liabilities that might ensue. An alternative plan was put into action — the town got a state nuisance permit, administered by my office, to take deer on airport grounds day or night. Deer continued to enter airport fields. Some of them were dispatched by nuisance hunters, to wit, members of the town police.

    Animal control has always been somewhat of a problem in East Hampton and on the South Fork in general. Nuisance trappers and exterminators dealt with the raccoons, opossums, foxes, squirrels, and rats, but their state licenses didn’t cover deer.

    Birds around airports could also present problems. At about the same time the fence was installed, I took a tour with an inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture’s office that handled nuisance wildlife at airports. When the she saw the numerous bluebird boxes which had been put up along the fields’ edges by Karylin Jones and myself three years earlier, she admonished me and said they should be removed. They never were (my fault), and more were added periodically in future years, leading to a healthy build-back of the bluebird population, which by the 1980s had been reduced to a few South Fork pairs. As far as I can tell, there has never been a collision between a bluebird and an airplane at the airport.

    The same department recently began shooting snowy owls at Kennedy airport during a bumper fly-down from the Arctic tundra beginning in November. Complaints were lodged from several quarters, including other federal entities, and the shooting program came to a standstill, replaced by a trap-and-removal program. The bluebird incident was the first time I became aware of the U.S.D.A. having such a role, as it seemed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would do a better and more humane job at it. But when I later realized that the U.S. Geological Survey does most of America’s surveys of fish and wildlife, I realized how the U.S.D.A.’s role in wildlife control could have come to be.

    In the area of animal husbandry and farming, the same U.S.D.A. advised farmers to use lead arsenate in the 1930s and ’40s to deal with weeds and vermin, as that salt was a combination pesticide and herbicide. Today, half the nation’s farm fields, including those in East Hampton and the rest of the East End, have high arsenic and lead concentrations as a result.

    Now their sharpshooters are about to take on the deer here using high-powered rifles with night scopes and silencers. (No need to wake up the residents in the middle of the night; they have to go work the next morning.)

    There is a perceived deer problem. I guess there is some truth to the notion when you consider the size of the Long Island deer population in the World War II 1940s and its number now. That is one of the reasons the East Hampton Group for Wildlife hired a wildlife population consulting group, led by a wildlife specialist, Frank Verret, to undertake a scientific population count of the town’s deer early in the spring of 2006. The Natural Resources Department assisted them. The team spent two weeks here and counted 3,293 deer. Then the town hired a consultant to undertake a second deer count in 2013, this one from the air using special cameras and night-vision observations. This count tallied 877 deer throughout the town. Both counts were science-based and both are considered to be accurate snapshots of the East Hampton deer population in two different years. What could account for the drop in population from 3,293 to 877, a 73-percent decrease, over a span of seven years?

    I will try to explain. In 2005 there were only four parcels in East Hampton Town, other than those cooperative stated-county-town areas such as Hither Woods, where deer hunting by shotgun and bow and arrow were allowed, the largest of which was the Grace Estate nature preserve in Northwest. My office was in charge of all of the town nature preserves at that time, and when I discovered hunters hunting on town lands where deer hunting was prohibited, I had the department put up no deer hunting signs.

    Well you can imagine the uproar that arose from Montauk Point to the town line on the west. Such uproar caught the attention of the town board and a councilman took it upon himself to deal with the situation. He instructed the Natural Resources Department to look at all of the town’s nature preserves, which today number more than 400, and see which ones could meet the criteria for legal big game hunting — 500 feet from a road or buildings. We put together a list of 34, including the four already listed in the town code, and the board enacted a local law expanding considerably the town-owned acreage open to deer hunting.

    Yes, lots of deer succumb each year to vehicle hits, a few other drown or die from sickness, but I am fairly certain that local deer hunters and licensed nuisance hunters such as those covering the airport are largely responsible for the large drop in numbers. I was a hunter myself early on and I am not opposed to licensed hunters taking deer on town lands because they know what they are doing and hunt for meat as much as for sport. Our local hunters are as skilled as our local fishermen and in a very big way control the overpopulations of waterfowl such as Canada geese and mallards, as well as deer, cottontails, turkeys, and other upland game.

    I am also for contraception, which has come a very long way since the Fire Island deer control program of 1995, which I participated in and videotaped. Until the authorities choose that route, if we let the town’s hunters continue to balance out the deer population by allowing deer hunting in both the town and village, in my opinion, there is no need to repeat a scene reminiscent of those many carried out by the Nazis in Europe in World War II or by Stalin in the Soviet Union prior to that time. The Movie­tone news clips and newspaper photos of which still burn in my mind.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at