A federal sharpshooter program to reduce the East End deer population has shaved the number of animals it plans to kill to about 1,000 from the original 2,000 to 3,000 because fewer municipalities are participating, a federal official said Thursday.
The cull, scheduled to begin early in February, likely won't begin until mid-month, said Allen Gosser, assistant state director of the USDA's animal and plant health inspection service. It will continue into March.
"Not all the municipalities have signed on," Gosser said. "We're probably looking at a number closer to 1,000."
Reducing damage caused by deer is the program's focus, more so than the actual number of deer taken, he said. "The real metric is the relief from damage" to yards and farms.
Delays in starting the controversial program are largely administrative, Gosser said, noting all the agreements that must be signed and other administrative matters.
Municipalities participating in the cull are the Town of Southold and the Village of East Hampton, along with state park properties and some private farms.
The towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Shelter Island are not participating, Gosser said. Brookhaven Town, which has "shown some interest," had not signed on. Towns that are not participating have opted out primarily for budget reasons, Gosser said.
Newsday previously reported that Southold, East Hampton Town and Brookhaven had budgeted money for the cull's $300,000 cost.
Gosser said if more towns had participated, the cull could have been larger.
"If there were more funding available, we probably could do more work," Gosser said.
Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger said that while the town had allocated money in its budget for deer control, it still had not signed onto the USDA project. "We are still evaluating it," he said.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst didn't return a call for comment. Sean Walter, Riverhead town supervisor, also could not be reached.
The sharpshooters, all federal employees, will work in two types of teams. Mobile teams of three will include a marksman equipped with a noise-suppressed .243 caliber rifle to avoid scattering the deer, a light spotter and a driver. The shooter is elevated so that any shot that misses will be deflected to the ground. The .243 caliber bullet is used because it is designed not to leave the animal.
The program will also deploy stationary shooters placed in designated areas to take deer as they move through. Gosser said up to three stationary teams are likely to be deployed, along with a single mobile team.
Local police will be notified and in some cases on hand to "secure and monitor" an area, including for possible protesters. "If we feel at all that an unsafe situation could occur then we will call it off for the night," he said.
Gosser said safety is the primary aim of the teams. While licensed hunters by law cannot shoot within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling, that restriction is waived for the federal deer shooters. "We can go as close as we need to, given the property owners' level of comfort," he said. The effort will begin at nightfall, and continue through the night because deer are nocturnal feeders, Gosser said. The plan is to work through targeted regions, complete a cull and then move on to the next.
"We don't want to be bouncing back and forth between the North Fork and the South Fork," Gosser said. Butchered venison will be donated to local food banks.
Shooters will primarily target female deer because it's a more effective means of controlling the population. Gosser said some bucks also may be taken, but the plan is to focus on does because population stabilization "doesn't happen until you remove 40 percent of the does."
The sharpshooters almost always take the deer with a single shot to the brain or neck, and rarely take a second shot, Gosser said.
"Our sharpshooters are trained and certified," he said. "They are biologists as well. We do everything in our power to make sure it's a single shot."