White-tailed deer at the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach will be shot and killed beginning Wednesday, the Fire Island National Seashore said, because the herd is so large it is destroying landscape and threatening the habitat's survival.
However, animal welfare activists have said nonlethal methods to control the herds, including contraception, are preferable and the culling will prove unsuccessful.
More than 100 of the 132 deer that live on the one-square-mile estate, named for a signer of the Declaration of Independence, will be killed over the next two years, park officials said. Another two-year hunt is scheduled for a 2020 start in the Fire Island National Seashore’s Wilderness area.
The culling, carried out by employees with the United States Department of Agriculture, aims to slash the herd to 20 to 25 deer per square mile and comes amid lawsuits brought in federal court by animal rights groups to stop it.
"The goal of this effort is to provide a healthy forest habitat for all plants and animals, and to preserve the historic landscape of the William Floyd Estate," Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Alex Romero said in a statement.
White-tailed deer eat native trees, shrubs and saplings, preventing the forest from maturing, and limiting the other wildlife — small mammals, amphibians and reptiles — the park can support, Romero said.
“Without intervention," he said, "there is little hope for these habitats to recover.”
About 400 deer lived on all of Fire Island, according to 2016 to 2018 surveys by the National Park Service.
The Wilderness area is just over 1.7 square miles and about 91 deer lived there, the agency estimated in 2018. About 65 of them would be killed if the herd's size doesn't change, under the park service's guidelines.
Critics of the cullings have argued for years that the government should control the deer population through contraception, not hunts. Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, Newark-based Wildlife Preserves Inc. and Darien, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, have asked the courts to stop the hunts.
“We’re very disappointed they are proceeding with the killing of deer while our legal proceedings are still pending,” said Michael Harris, the Darien’s group’s wildlife law program director. “We believe the plan to remove the deer will not only be found to be illegal and … also, quite honestly, largely ineffective in solving the problems they perceive.”
Park service policy bars officials commenting on ongoing lawsuits.
In January, researchers in Head of the Harbor began testing facial recognition software, drone-mounted infrared cameras and a dart-delivered contraceptives to track, count and contain a white-tailed deer population.
Though contraception was an option, the park service said, it would take too long — 10 years or more — and no current drugs meet all its requirements.
Any such drugs must be approved by the federal government and registered with the state, be at least 80 percent effective, last at least three years, and have little effect on deer behavior, according to the park service. Also, deer that are killed must be safe to eat.
Surgical sterilization is too risky as it could kill the deer, the park service said.
The deer herds, at the William Floyd Estate and on Fire Island, have risen and fallen dramatically, Elizabeth Rogers, a Seashore spokeswoman said.
About 80 to 240 deer have lived at the William Floyd Estate since 1996.
The barrier island had 46 deer in a 1971 survey but that number soared to about 500 in 1989, Rogers said. Since 1995, she said, the herd has ranged from 300 to 500 — peaking at 700 in 2003.
The “interacting” factors driving the fluctuations are: an experimental contraception program and varying survival rates over winter, she said.
The contraception program seemed to work from Kismet to Lonelyville on Fire Island, she said.
”In many other areas however, it simply was not successful in reducing the number of deer over time,” she added.
The exact number of deer to be culled at the William Floyd Estate is not yet known, Rogers said.
“The outcome of this year’s operation and deer and vegetation monitoring will guide removal operations throughout the duration of the program.”
The wilderness area culling also may rely solely on federal employees.
“There are currently no plans to carry out a public hunt," she said.