National Park Service considers ways to reduce Fire Island deer herd

Wildlife biologists attribute dying vegetation on Fire Island to an overpopulation of white-tailed deer. Plans on how to control the deer population are up for debate publicly as of Aug. 27, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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The iconic deer roaming the Fire Island National Seashore may be in peril, as the National Park Service weighs options to control the increased population with lethal and nonlethal methods.

With an estimated 300 white-tailed deer now living in about eight square miles of the national park portion of the barrier island, park service officials say the hungry creatures, which have no natural predators, are destroying native vegetation and threatening the rare Sunken Forest maritime holly forest -- one of only two in the world.

The service is proposing reducing the Fire Island deer population either through reproductive controls, killing the animals with sharpshooters or a limited and controlled public hunt, or some combination of nonlethal and lethal methods. No target number for the reduction was specified.

"We have specific needs here, with regards to making sure not only the animals survive but also the plants. There's a balance," said park Superintendent Christopher Soller. "And when one species -- either plant or animal -- gets out of control, we try to ensure that it doesn't crowd out something else."

The park service prefers a combination plan that uses lethal options until an unspecified "target deer density" is reached, then using reproductive controls. Current deer density is estimated to be as high as 112 per square mile around the Sunken Forest area. Planned deer culls in the four of the five East End towns last winter were called off because of public protests; a limited cull occurred in Southold Town that killed about 160 deer.

The agency said it believes an acceptable reproductive vaccine will be available within a decade, and lethal methods would be used until the vaccine is developed.

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Animal advocates say deer control should be achieved solely through reproductive means, and an acceptable vaccine already exists.

"We want humane, nonlethal, noncontroversial methods," said Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director of innovative wildlife management program for the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society worked with the park service on a 15-year study of an immunocontraceptive vaccine on the deer population, and Griffin said the vaccine cut the deer population on Fire Island in half from 1995 to 2009.

The park service said the vaccine used in the Humane Society study is unacceptable because of the short duration of a dose, the lack of federal approval for the vaccine, and breeding behavior in vaccinated does.

"They're a captive audience and they're quite tame now," said Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island. "The idea of going over there and shooting them is so primitive and backwards."

The park allowed a state-run deer hunt for research purposes on the island in 1988, but residents complained that the hunt would be too close to populated areas and future hunts were canceled, according to park service biologist Lindsay Ries.

"We've learned what to put outside the fences and what to keep inside the fences," said resident Marian Toonkel, who noted the deer have come and gone in her 30 years on Fire Island. "Whatever is done, I want them to do humanely."

The service is taking public comments on the proposed deer management plans until Oct. 10. The plans can be found at parkplanning.nps.gov/fiis.

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