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Frustration over deer numbers dominates town forum

There are far too many deer in Southold Town, something dramatic has to be done to reduce their numbers, and many residents are tired of talking about the problem and attending meetings where the issue is discussed.

That was the major takeaway at a deer forum held Wednesday evening in Southold Town Hall.

“People are concerned about the numbers, and we are doing what we can to address this problem,” said Craig Jobes, wildlife manager for Southold Town, who hosted the forum. “In some areas we don’t feel it’s getting any worse, but we have to bring the numbers down.”

The forum brought together three experts: Susan Booth-Binczik, a wildlife biologist with the State Department of Environmental Conservation; Allen Gosser, the state director of wildlife services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Thomas Rawinski, a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. Jobes began the presentation by saying the forum was about deer and not ticks. “We understand the deer and tick problem are related,” he said, adding that the speakers were there to talk about deer numbers and the impact on the environment.

Ms. Booth-Binczik addressed some basic truths about white-tailed deer: they breed early and often, and the deer population doubles every two to three years. To gain a foothold on that increase, the population would have to drop approximately 40 percent every year just to keep the numbers stable.

The deer have no natural predators here, so hunting — and collisions with cars — are the only checks on their numbers. To control the tick problem, she said, deer numbers would have been sharply lowered. Their overabundance means they are killing off woodlands and plant life and destroying crops. 

She said access by hunters to private land will reduce their numbers, since the amount of pubic land is limited.

Mr. Gosser summed up the problem this way: “The level of deer damage here on the East End is the greatest I have seen anywhere in New York.”

Mr. Rawinski explained that large numbers of deer have denuded forests, destroyed native plant life, with young trees barely having a chance to mature before they are eaten by the deer. 

“Forests can’t regenerate,” he said. “We will look like the moors of Scotland if we don’t control this problem.”

He went on to say birds that were once common here have been sharply reduced because of habitat loss. At one point he referred to deer herds as a pestilence and said “people who protest hunting are siding with the pestilence.”

Mr. Jobes pointed out that the overwhelming amount of land in the town where the deer live is private, and thus hunters would need permission to hunt there. He said a goal for a healthy herd is about eight to 10 deer per square mile; he said there are estimates today of approximately 64 deer per square mile.

During a question and answer period, Mr. Jobes said that recreational hunting won’t reduce the herd enough and said that culling by professional hunters is needed.

One speaker said, “We keep having these meetings and experts come and things keep getting worse. There is no improvement — it’s getting worse. If you don’t have culls, it won’t happen. We will have another meeting three or four years from now and it will be worse.”

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who attended the meeting and introduced the speakers, and who knows the problem first hand on his Peconic farm, said in an email: “Today’s deer population management isn’t coming close to being effective. The current damage to our natural resources and health is unsustainable.  There needs to be wholesale changes to the way New York State manages the herd.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, whose government has worked hard to open up hunting and also to help hunters donate tons of venison from animals they harvest, said in an email: “There is still a large group of people who oppose hunting, although that number is getting smaller.

“This is especially important as we look to expand our hunting efforts,” he wrote. “We think the number of deer we are taking from the preserves is a good start. That said, we also think we’ve reached our potential there. We plan to undertake an effort to reach out to private landowners to get their permission to allow hunting on their properties.

“We already have a registration on our website for interested owners, but now it’s time to really focus on getting them engaged … The debate for some time is whether or not recreational hunting is enough to address the crisis. Probably not, but even professional hunting organizations can’t address it if they have no places to hunt. Our next challenge is to identify those places.”

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