Hope gave way to disappointment on Tuesday when members of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife, having successfully lobbied the town board to talk about banning hunting on one weekend day during the hunting season, listened as just one of five members expressed support.
Six proponents of a one-weekend-day ban addressed the board, the culmination of a long campaign to compel a response to their proposal. The wildlife group had argued that people and pets are unsafe in the woods during hunting season.
Three other residents spoke in opposition to any ban, arguing that the hunting season, and work schedules, already tightly restrict a centuries-old local tradition.
Deer hunting with firearms was allowed from Jan. 6 to Jan. 31 this year, seven of those days falling on weekends. Hunting rules and regulations are set by New York State and enforced by state conservation officers, as well as by federal Fish and Wildlife agents where migratory birds are concerned.
On Tuesday, however, there was uncertainty as to the state’s jurisdiction, with Councilman Jeff Bragman and John Jilnicki, the town attorney, disagreeing as to the town’s authority to set its own rules on hunting. Mr. Jilnicki said that after conferring with the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s counsel, he concluded that a municipality cannot overrule the state. Mr. Bragman noted that East Hampton already prohibits hunting on some town-owned lands, and said that fact demonstrated its jurisdiction. “I agree with them,” Mr. Bragman said of the Group for Wildlife. “We should have one weekend day entirely free of guns and hunting. I wanted to say that clearly.”
Municipal home rule law, he said, “can come into play even when the state has enacted broad regulations. There is some authority for localities to enact our own laws that comport better with our local needs and responsibilities.” Other board members, however, cited deer-vehicle collisions, a decimated forest understory, tick-borne illnesses, and deer fencing in arguing against a one-day hunting ban. The Group for Wildlife called those reasons a pretense to scapegoat deer for human encroachment on habitat, or faulty conclusions based on incomplete or deficient research.
“I’m asking, in all the planning and all decision making, that you finally show some empathy for other living beings,” Bill Crain, president of the Group For Wildlife, told the board, once it was clear that support for a one-day ban would not be forthcoming. “You have not done that yet in your policymaking.” Mr. Crain, a psychologist, had earlier spoken of a growing body of research as to “nature’s calming effects” and its “benefits to emotional well-being.”
As to reducing the deer population, absent a count of the herd, “We have no idea if the expanded hunting we’ve had so far” — the state lifted a longtime ban on weekend hunting five years ago — “has had any effect,” Mr. Crain said. Those concerned about overbrowsing, he said, should consider that the proliferation of deer fences has concentrated browsing elsewhere. “Research indicates that an abundance of deer is not associated with the illnesses,” he said of ticks, which are carried by many mammals as well as birds.
“The board needs to understand,” said Carol Buda, a member of the wildlife group, that the state lifting its weekend ban had “a huge negative impact on the larger community.” The vast majority of people “will not walk, especially with children or dogs, where hunting could be going on,” she said. “That’s their personal choice.”
Yuka Silvera, who for several months has been gathering signatures on a petition supporting a one-day ban, told the board that she now had 688, 615 of them from residents of the town. “I understand you have to be fair to everyone,” she told the board. “That is exactly what we are asking.” Awakening to the sound of gunfire at 5 a.m. on a weekend was unfair to residents, she said. “I don’t understand why killing more deer is the only solution.”
But Terry O’Riordan and Steve Griffiths of the East Hampton Sportsmen’s Alliance, and Hugh Miles, a hunter from Springs, offered their own arguments. Town lands are open every day of the year for those who want to hike and cycle, Mr. O’Riordan said. “Hunters are faced with state and federal regulations that have total authority over hunting season, which comprises a small percentage of calendar days.” Deer, he said, are “ravaging our woods and creating hundreds upon hundreds of deer-vehicle catastrophes.”
The Group for Wildlife’s campaign is “a smoke and mirror to stop hunting in East Hampton,” Mr. Miles said. “Unfortunately, most of the working men and women that are sportsmen are now working, not sitting in this audience.”
Some two hours of public comment, on hunting and other matters, took place before the board took up the proposed ban.
“This is a rather controversial issue, and has been for some time,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. He cited a jump in deer-vehicle collisions from around 475 in 2016 to almost 650 last year, although both figures almost surely undercounted the actual totals.
Northwest Woods, where he lives, has changed dramatically, the supervisor said, citing an “understory denuded, species disappeared. . . . Anyone who hikes, take notice to how many deciduous trees have a size less than one inch in diameter. It would be very difficult to find any.”
Fencing, which concentrates deer in open areas, is responsible for more sightings of the animals, he said, which leads to yet more fencing. While deer “are a part of nature” and “have a place,” said the supervisor, “we have to make some very difficult choices. I don’t think we can ignore our responsibility for having eliminated all natural predators and leave cars to be the primary predator of deer.”
A hunting ban on town-owned property might compromise public safety, Councilman David Lys said, given that many hiking trails cross through town, state, and county-owned land, as well as that owned by the Nature Conservancy, the Peconic Land Trust, the Suffolk County Water Authority, or privately.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said she identified with the Group for Wildlife members’ convictions. “But from my perspective, forests are dying. We have no understory, no place for ecosystems to thrive anymore. Species other than deer “need groundcover to exist, and it doesn’t.”
East Hampton is a rural community, she said, and “part of being rural is being able to hunt. . . . I think banning hunting gets us a step closer to urbanization.”