Judge shoots down attempt to stop deer cull

Deer on Deep Hole Drive in Mattituck. (Lynette Dallas courtesy file photo)
Deer on Deep Hole Drive in Mattituck. (Lynette Dallas courtesy file photo)

A state Supreme Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Southold Town that sought to prevent a plan to use hired federal hunters to trim the number of deer within town lines.

On Wednesday, Judge Gerard Asher determined the suit, which protested the town’s decision to contribute $25,000 to the Long Island Farm Bureau to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sharpshooter program, to be without merit. 

The Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island filed the suit and made a request Friday for a temporary restraining order to halt the cull. The action was filed in conjunction with a number of other groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute and Hunters for Deer.

Both parties appeared in state Supreme Court in Riverhead for the first time Wednesday.

[Previous Coverage: Suit filed against Southold Town over deer cull]

Attorney Leo Barnes of Melville represented the environmental groups. He argued Southold Town should not be allowed to pay into the program because it failed to complete a proper environmental impact review.

Mr. Barnes argued that the town planning department’s recent declaration that the program is a “type 2 action” and would have no significant adverse impact on the environment was improperly categorized under the State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQRA, law.

A “type 2 action” is not subject to a full environmental review, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It exempted the plan from more in-depth analysis by categorizing the proposal as agricultural farm management practices. In fact, the plan was spearheaded by the LIFB, which originally proposed the idea to all five East End towns.

[Previous Coverage: Town moves forward with sharpshooting]

“The town violated SEQRA,” Mr. Barnes said. “This is a wild animal management plan and its being categorized as an agricultural operation.”

Town attorney Martin Finnegan argued that the intent of board’s decision was to protect agriculture from being “trampled” and “grazed,” and fit within the classification of a type 2 action.

“The impact the deer have on the town, specifically farmers, is not speculative and it should not be outweighed by deer watching,” Mr. Finnegan said.

After 15 minutes of deliberation, Judge Asher ruled in favor of the town, saying Southold properly completed the SEQRA process. He denied the request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the town from moving forward with the program.

“The town has properly considered this action in regards to SEQRA,” Judge Asher said. “To this court’s judgment, there is no irreparable harm.”

After the decision, Wendy Chamberlain, founder of the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island, said the judge’s ruling would not stop the organization from trying to prevent the cull. However, she could not say what their next step will be.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Ms. Chamberlain said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I can’t understand how he came to that decision.”

Members of her group had been pressing the town to consider other methods of thinning the herd, including the introduction of porcina zona pellucida, a protein that blocks an aspect of reproduction in female deer. Critics of that approach contend it has never been attempted on deer populations as large as Southold’s.

Following the Town Board’s Feb. 11 vote to proceed with the plan, Supervisor Scott Russell said board members were acting in the best interest of the town. He said the overpopulation of deer on the North Fork is having an adverse affect on the environment, residents’ health, town finances and overall safety.

“The fact of the matter is the town did what it had to do to move forward and we’re glad the court agreed,” Mr. Russell said Wednesday.

The supervisor said the he would be in contact with the LIFB and USDA shorty to determine a start date for the cull.

In the months since the deer culling plan was introduced by the farm bureau, DEC officials have approved nine individual landowner permits in the region to bring in federal sharpshooters. About 20 additional permits are pending DEC review, said DEC spokesperson Lori Severino.

No municipality has yet submitted an application, she said, but Southold’s attorney, Mr. Finnegan, said Tuesday the town would not apply directly to the DEC.

That step would be the responsibility of the USDA and the farm bureau, he said.

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