Federal sharpshooters have begun killing deer on eastern Long Island as part of a contract with the Long Island Farm Bureau, federal officials said.

The shootings began this week and took place at night on private properties, said Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal officials wouldn't say where the shootings are occurring. However, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued 12 deer damage permits for properties in Riverhead, Southold and Southampton for the cull, said Aphrodite Montalvo, a DEC spokeswoman. Another six permit applications associated with the cull are pending.

Opponents of the deer cull criticized officials for maintaining a "cloak of secrecy" surrounding the start of the cull.

"It's shocking and undemocratic," said Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island. She said residents of eastern Long Island are calling in reports of trucks driving down streets in search of deer.

"It's scary and unsettling," she said, adding that with "such a high-octane issue, you'd think transparency would be number one."

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Farmers have complained that deer -- estimated at some 30,000 on the East End -- damage crops, while many East End residents view them as tick carriers that cause car crashes and destroy the forest understory.

Michael Tessitore, founder of the East Quogue group Hunters for Deer, which has opposed the hunt, said hunters began reporting the presence of federal agents Tuesday. He provided photos of a white pickup truck with "USDA-04" stenciled on the side and a tree stand in Southold.

The USDA referred further comment to the farm bureau, which represents farmers on Long Island and has the master contract with the USDA's Wildlife Services. The group's executive director, Joe Gergela, did not immediately return calls for comment Friday.

According to a signed agreement between the Farm Bureau and USDA, the federal wildlife biologists will shoot at night, from tree stands located above bait and from mobile trucks, using suppressed, or silenced, rifles. They also will use drop nets in suburban areas to capture deer. All the hunting will take place on property with owners' permission.

Meat will be donated to food banks.

Some towns and villages have declined to fund the programs or allow sharpshooters on municipal property. Only Southold, which agreed to spend $25,000 on the cull, is still participating in the program. A State Supreme Court justice on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit to block Southold from participating.

The original plan, formulated this summer, would have been the largest federal deer cull in state history. It called for reducing the East End herd by 2,000 to 3,000 this year, and included plans for the sharpshooters to come back each winter for three years. It would have included five eastern Long Island towns plus eastern Brookhaven.

The latest USDA estimates put the goal closer to 1,000 deer kills.

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Many hunting groups opposed the cull, saying it would be better to ease hunting restrictions, and that towns have been too restrictive in allowing sportsmen onto their land.

Animal-rights groups have advocated contraception and sterilization, although federal and local officials said that is too costly and not feasible for such a large area.

The Village of North Haven has begun negotiating with White Buffalo Inc., a private deer culling firm from Connecticut, according to 27East.com.