After deer cull flopped, USDA calls for ‘regional, integrated’ approach

Deer in the backyard of a Southold home. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
Deer in the backyard of a Southold home. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Considering the disappointing numbers reported last week from the controversial deer cull that took place earlier this year, a call is going out to get all stakeholders — especially environmentalists — involved as state and regional authorities regroup and figure out a plan to tackle Suffolk County’s overpopulated deer herds. 

“It’s important to get everyone to recognize how important it is to reduce numbers,” said Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela. That group led the cull, which took place over six weeks from February to April.

The farm bureau began lobbying more than a year ago to get East End communities on board with the idea. But after facing stiff opposition from a diverse group comprising hunters and environmentalists alike, Mr. Gergela said his organization won’t seek funds for another cull.

“Down the road, if the community wants to do it again, let the community go to Albany,” he said.

Mr. Gergela, along with Southold Supervisor Scott Russell — the only East End supervisor who favored allocating funds to the effort, despite pushback from opponents — said they hope to see more support in the future from the environmental community to help manage the deer population, whether that involves a cull or not. In addition, both hope for support from public health advocates.

The farm bureau received a $200,000 state grant to fund the cull, which was undertaken by federally trained sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the final tally of just 192 deer killed was deemed a disappointment by many.

The county’s deer population is estimated to be anywhere from 25,000 to 36,000.

The 21-page report on the cull compiled by the USDA and released last week states that “the most effective and long-term approach to white-tailed deer damage management caused by an overpopulation of deer is by managing the herd on a regional level with an integrated management approach, through a variety of applicable methods.”

The USDA report also signals how help from the environmental community could change the conversation. Recent research, it states, “indicates that public acceptance of killing local white-tailed deer can hinge on the public’s understanding of the amount of local ecological damage that an overpopulated herd can cause.”

But those in the environmental community said more research and outreach to residents needs to be done in order to sell any viable solution to the general public.

How much ecological damage has been done — by how many deer — isn’t precisely known, environmentalists contend.

“They need to do comprehensive research about what the problem is, where it is and what management techniques are most suitable to address the problem,” said Dick Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society of Long Island.

The North Fork Environmental Council plans to print several hundred fliers for members, as well as area businesses and organizations, outlining the impact deer have on the local ecosystem. The group’s president, Bill Toedter, hopes the four-page pamphlet will reach at least 1,500 people.

“You need to kind of get people to understand what the problem is before you go out and present a solution,” he said. “Because you can’t assume everybody knows and understands. That was a big failing.”

Mr. Toedter also said that because the effort was led by one group in particular — the farm bureau — “we weren’t at the table to discuss our concerns.”

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, said the evidence for not informing the public well enough was in the report itself. Out of 928 hours documented by its employees, the USDA reported spending just 44 of those hours — or 4.7 percent — conducting public outreach.

“While maybe they didn’t perceive that as the mission, I feel like the principal issue starts with the outreach slice of the pie getting bigger,” Mr. DeLuca said.

He compared the deer problem with water quality concerns in the area: ecologically damaging, though negative impacts aren’t obvious to the untrained eye. Earlier this year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pointed to water quality improvement as his administration’s number one priority.

Beyond environmental concerns, Mr. Russell said he would like to see “a consortium of East End leaders from all fields” get together to find a long-term solution to the deer problem.

“We need all these groups sitting around a table,” he said, pointing to the East End Mayors and Supervisors Association as one place to start. “Any measurable difference is going to be probably over the course of a few years. What we need to do is develop a long-range strategy.”

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