Deer on Fire Island in February of last year.

Deer on Fire Island in February of last year. Credit: Barry Sloan

White-tailed deer, especially ones accustomed to people, are being hunted at the Fire Island National Seashore this month, as there are so many that their grazing is killing native and ornamental plants and threatening the survival of other creatures, park officials say.

This appears to be the first recent hunt the National Park Service has allowed on Fire Island, a 32-mile-long barrier island that sits off Suffolk’s southern coast. The park service’s management plan, which documents the herds’ growth since the park was created in 1964, says 54 deer were hunted from 1988 to 1989; then from 1993 to 2009, immunocontraception roughly halved the number of deer, it said. 

Armed with shotguns, the hunters, who are working for a private contractor hired by the National Park Service, are part of a three-year project to cut the herds to no more than 20 to 25 deer per square mile. Achieving that goal will require killing hundreds of deer. 

There are about 400 deer on Fire Island, home to thousands of summer homes prized for their proximity to New York City. The densities of deer on the island range from 50 to 300 per square mile, the park service says.   

Another roughly 100 deer live at the 1-square-mile William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, which is part of the National Seashore despite its mainland location. Last year, 25 deer were killed at the estate by U.S. Department of Agriculture hunters from its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Alexcy Romero in a statement highlighted the damage deer cause. “The overabundance of white-tailed deer has resulted in the depletion of native tree and shrub seedlings and saplings preventing the natural ability of the forest to mature and regenerate and has decreased habitat for a multitude of native wildlife species,” he said.

“Without intervention, there is little hope for these habitats to recover from the impacts of an overabundance of deer.”

While the hunts only are allowed in the Wilderness Area — and not in any of the island’s 17 communities —– deer accustomed to eating bagels, cupcakes and other goodies from people will be targeted. “Deer observed approaching humans within the Fire Island communities would be captured and euthanized to reduce the risk of negative human-deer interactions and prevent other deer from learning this behavior through observation,” the park service report says.

No deer will be hunted at Robert Moses State Park, located in Babylon, on the western end of Fire Island. That's because the U.S. Department of Agriculture hunters were not available, according to George Gorman, the Long Island regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.   

Critics of the deer hunts, who tried but failed to persuade the courts to stop them last year, fault the park service for not using other options, such as immunocontraception, a more humane approach, they say, though it takes longer.

DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, noted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved two immunocontraceptives, which can be used in New York State under research permits. Hastings-on-the-Hudson and the Village of Head of Harbor on Long Island are testing their efficacy, he said, noting the Fire Island National Seashore used this method from 1993 to 2009.

“There is ample scientific evidence including from Fire Island, that it works not only in stopping the growth of deer populations but, over time, reducing deer numbers,” he said.

The park service plan anticipates using immunocontraceptives after the cullings and after an “acceptable agent” is available. It says: “Once reduced, the deer population could be maintained through fertility control.”  

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