Southold’s burgeoning deer population is much more than a nuisance; it’s a health crisis.
Many of the nearly 100 people who packed the house at a forum on deer management sponsored by the town Tuesday night said they’d contracted at least one of a number of deer tick-borne diseases.
Cara Wells just finished a 28-day Doxycycline dosing for Lyme disease and has suffered from numerous tick-borne diseases since the day she moved to Southold in 2002.
“I would happily volunteer for a human Frontline trial,” she said during the gathering at the town recreation center in Peconic. “I’m a tick magnet. They love me. I keep DEET in my car. I spray it on myself constantly. What’s worse, the DEET or the dox?”
Justine Gilvarry said a friend researching the health problem documented people who’d lost their spleens and children whose faces had been paralyzed because of complications from tick-borne diseases.
John Woods of Peconic said he had had Lyme disease twice and recently hit a deer with his car. He estimated that he spends $3,000 per year to protect himself from deer, which are prime hosts for ticks.
“I’m thrown by the fact that they’re no longer afraid of us,” he said of local deer. “It’s getting to be almost an out-of-control problem.”
Wildlife scientist John Rasweiler added that he is concerned that a large deer population could spread far more diseases and parasites than just the omnipresent Lyme disease.
“I look at our deer population and all kinds of flags go up,” he said. “The whole story of West Nile virus … this can very easily happen again and here we have a wildlife population that could serve as a reservoir for this kind of disease.”
He estimated that there are about 10,000 deer in Southold, and last year hunters killed only 462. He added that most deer produce two or three young a year.
“If we don’t humanely cull the herd, nature is going to take its course,” he said. “Sooner or later, they’re going to die off either of disease or hunger.”
Southold Town, which has begun to promote nuisance hunting with special state permits to thin the herd, this year agreed to lease a refrigerator truck for hunters to store venison to be donated as food to Long Island Cares.
Michael Clark, who oversees deer management for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said he is pushing the state to allow hunting with a bow and arrow closer than the current 500 feet from a house now set as a minimum. He believes that bow and arrow hunting should be permitted within 200 feet of houses, which he said would dramatically increase the amount of land people could hunt with nuisance permits. State Assemblyman Mark Alessi, who attended the forum, said he plans to introduce legislation to decrease the bow hunting restriction to 250 feet.
Mr. Clark added that under the nuisance permit program, homeowners have the ultimate control over who can hunt and when on their land.
He said he was looking for butchers on the East End who were willing to help process venison caught by hunters who donate the meat, because the only venison processors on Long Island are in Oakdale and Farmingville. The state pays $1.50 a pound for their services.
“If you know a person who likes to cut up meat, put them in touch with me,” he said.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he’d received many e-mails and phone calls imploring him to consider using contraception on deer. But New York State, which views venison as a fundamental food source, will not allow contraceptive chemicals in game meat. He also said the town had been dealing with people defacing and destroying hunting area signs since town workers began putting them up this month. He added that he often gets calls from the people who oppose hunting saying they are also opposed to deer fences.
“Folks, it’s getting to a point where we have to make decisions,” he said. “We can’t have open farmland and a robust deer herd.”
Joe Gergela, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said deer have dramatically changed farming to the point where expensive deer fences are necessary to ensure that farmers don’t lose their crops.
“We’ve seen deer digging potatoes with their hooves in the Hallockville area,” he said.
The town invited Lee Humberg, who works for the USDA’s Wildlife Services, to the forum to describe the services his agency offers. Mr. Humberg cautioned that the use of USDA hunting teams, who charge between $1,500 and $2,500 for a night’s work, must be done in conjunction with other management programs to be a cost-effective solution.
“The government gives us enough money to keep the lights on. The rest of our budget comes from service fees,” he said, adding that, on a good night in a well-placed location, the USDA’s hunting teams can take out 50 deer.
“If in the town of Southold there are 10,000 deer, I’m not going to solve your problem,” he said.