Coalition to county: Declare public health emergency over spread of tick-borne disease

A North Fork deer management coalition wants Suffolk County to declare a public health emergency over the high deer and tick populations — and consequent spread of tick-borne disease — in the county.

Representatives of the coalition, spearheaded by local civic groups and community leaders, outlined a two-track action plan to address what one member called “a serious public health crisis” in a virtual meeting last Wednesday.

“We have to change New York State conservation law to use more aggressive tactics,” said John Rasweiler, a member of the North Fork Deer Alliance. “We on the North Fork Deer Alliance have approached legislators about doing that and we haven’t gotten a lot of cooperation. That’s one of the reasons we suggested getting Suffolk County to declare a health emergency in Suffolk, because of our epidemic of tick-borne diseases.”

Southold is home to an estimated six to 10 times more deer than the local ecosystem can sustain, according to the coalition, causing damage to the environment and human health. More than 90% of 194 respondents to a recent survey from the coalition said they know someone who has suffered a tick-borne disease.

The overpopulation of deer prevents new tree growth, damages crops and impacts food safety, has a negative impact on water quality and has led to deer collisions at a rate 2.5 times the national average, a presentation at the meeting noted.

“The Town of Southold has a very effective deer management program,” Mr. Rasweiler said. “It’s actually one of the better deer management programs that I’m aware of. However, as it’s presently conducted, it’s simply incapable of solving our problem. And I’m afraid in another 10 years, we’re still going to have the same problems with no improvement. And indeed, the problems could even get worse.”

Mr. Rasweiler noted that the town’s hands are “pretty much tied by New York State conservation law,” but there are still some “promising” initiatives Southold could take that would help reduce the deer population.

A slide in the presentation outlining ways the town can expand its deer management program suggested an evening hunting program, hunter incentives, education on best hunting practices, and forage plots and grassland management to attract deer away from residential communities.

The coalition also argued that Suffolk County should declare a health emergency “to aid us in solving and managing the crisis” and Southold should coordinate with the county to approach the state legislature and DEC on legislative changes recommended in a DEC report. The DEC recommends extending the hunting season, allowing crossbow hunting, and offering compensation to hunters and tax incentives to landowners, among other things.

The coalition listed deer relocation, using acaricide to treat property for ticks, rodent de-ticking devices, four-poster deer de-ticking stations and deer fertility control among tactics that don’t work.

One viewer asked whether there have been any effective birth control methods used on the deer population.

Mr. Rasweiler, who has a doctorate in reproductive physiology, responded that an immunocontraceptive vaccine was tried on Fire Island for years without much success. 

“It was actually originally developed by one of my close friends and colleagues when I was a graduate student up at Cornell, so I have followed it with particular interest,” he said. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t work.”

The deer has to be caught in order to be injected with the contraceptive and “even by the second year, its effectiveness is already starting to wear off,” he explained.

“You have to immunize roughly 85 to 90% of the herd within a two- or three-year period because all of the does that have not been immunized are continuing to produce one, two, three fawns each year. And that is simply impossible to accomplish,” he said. “How do you catch all of the does in two or three years, at an astronomical cost?”

Responding to another viewer who asked what it would take to change DEC legislation, Mark Haubner, vice president of the North Fork Environmental Council, said the process is a “community engagement effort.” 

“I think part of the strategy we had mentioned during this presentation is to bring this to the county. We’ve got support from [County Legislator] Al Krupski,” he said. “At this point, we know that there’s an issue, certainly, and that has to go to the state in order for these changes to be made.”

He added that he hopes neighboring towns, including Brookhaven, will help “expand this to the rest of Suffolk County quickly and reasonably.”

“We’ve got to restrategize, but again, making the table larger and including the people who can actually make the decisions to be at those tables,” he said.

The full presentation will be available on the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association YouTube channel.