Gov. Hochul signs deer management bill for Southold; goes into effect Jan. 1

State and local experts agree on one critical point about the white-tailed deer population in Southold Town: There are far too many of them. 

Now, help is on the way. A bill specific to Southold sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) and signed Friday by Gov. Kathy Hochul allows trained professionals who are state or federal contractors under the supervision of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to use more aggressive methods to sharply reduce the herd size. The new law does not apply to recreational hunting.

While a copy of the bill reviewed by The Suffolk Times does not specifically describe hunting methods, local backers of the measure said methods – such as the use of crossbows – will be set by the DEC working with the professionals.

Mr. Palumbo said Tuesday that the DEC will only work with professionally trained contractors, who will also have the approval of local law enforcement. “The program is government operated,” Mr. Palumbo said. “This is entirely separate from hunting regulations. He said the new law will go into effect Jan. 1.

Southold Town Board member Greg Doroski, who has been closely involved with the deer issue, said Tuesday, “The DEC and our deer management people in Southold Town will decide what is appropriate in our management plan.”

He also said that the town’s deer management groups will “go back and work on another bill to address the recreational hunting side of the equation. Recreational hunters are an important part of deer management in Southold Town. With additional tools – crossbows, an extended season, the ability to receive compensation, etc., – they can contribute even more.”

Experts have said that recreational hunting in Southold has not had a significant impact on the size of the herd. Estimates vary of the numbers of white-tailed deer in Riverhead and Southold towns, but a good guess from people who study the issue is approximately 7,000. Perhaps 3,000 of those are in Southold Town.

A healthy deer population consists of  about 8 to 10 deer per square mile, experts have said. Southold Town has approximately 60 square miles of land, meaning a deer population that doesn’t destroy the understory in woods and does not pose a serious health hazard from tick-borne diseases, would be something like 500 to 600 in all of Southold — far fewer than are here now.

“The region’s deer population is a major concern for area farmers and residents alike,” Mr. Palumbo said in a press release. “The exploding deer population causes millions of dollars in crop loss each year, has led to an increase in motor vehicle accidents and poses health risks to families due to the spread of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.

“This new law, which has broad community support, will provide the Town of Southold with the tools it needs to help reduce the deer population,” he said. “This program will be a benefit to the agricultural community and residents and bring balance to the region’s ecosystem and protect the environment.” 

John Rasweiler, a retired medical school professor and a current member of both the Southold Town Deer Management Task Force and the Suffolk County Tick Control Advisory Committee, said that a “greatly excessive deer population bears central responsibility for our current problems with tick-borne diseases, a high frequency of deer-vehicular collisions, severe damage to our natural environment and the preservation of biodiversity, and harm to our important agricultural sector. 

“The bottom line is that eastern Long Island is now one of the worst places in the world for ticks and tick-borne diseases,” he said. “New York State’s new deer management legislation will permit Southold to utilize more aggressive and productive strategies, such as the employment of trained professionals to deal with concentrations of deer or deer frequenting residential areas where recreational hunting would not be permitted. “

The bill does not set a specific number of deer to be culled. Its major provisions state that a nuisance wildlife specialist will be issued a deer cull permit for use in the town; the specialist may “entice deer” in furtherance of the management plan; may hunt from a public highway; and the plan will be managed and supervised by the DEC.

Mr. Doroski said, “At the start of my term, some folks said there was nothing more we could do on the local level to improve deer management because of New York State law. Rather than sitting idly by, we got to work on drafting state legislation to allow us to more aggressively manage the deer herd in Southold Town. 

“Working together with local conservationists, state elected officials on both sides of the aisle and state experts, we crafted a pilot program to give us much-needed tools to take action,” he added. “The work isn’t done but this is a great start to address the crisis. Assembly Member Thiele and State Senator Palumbo deserve our gratitude for their hard work to get this bill signed into law, as does Assembly Member Jodi Giglio, who helped us draft an early version of the bill.”