Nearly four dozen white-tailed deer were shot and killed at five Long Island state parks by U.S. Agriculture Department hunters because, officials say, overly large herds are damaging the landscape.
Four federal employees killed the most deer — 21 — at Robert Moses State Park in Babylon, agriculture department spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said by email on Friday.
“We conducted work at the Robert Moses State Park last night — which was the only night we conducted removal operations,” she said.
Unlike members of the public, the federal hunters who cull herds can lure the deer with bait such as apples, and use flashlights to blind them. These hunters also can use thermal imaging to ensure other animals are not targeted by mistake. The deer they kill are given to food banks.
Another deer hunt, which had been set to start last Wednesday at the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, remains suspended until a judge decides whether to grant an injunction to animal welfare groups that sued, arguing the hunts are ineffective and nonlethal options should be used instead.
Critics also say parks officials have failed to keep up with the latest methods for limiting herds.
In January, for example, researchers in Head of the Harbor began testing facial recognition software, drone-mounted infrared cameras and dart-delivered contraceptives to track, count and contain the deer population.
“Deer culling is an unfortunate but necessary approach to restore the health of native plants, reduce the number of vehicle-related deaths and injuries to the deer, and protect visitors,” Dan Keefe, a state parks department spokesman, said by email.
At East Islip’s Heckscher State Park, 17 deer were culled, he said.
Five were killed at Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve in Lloyd Harbor, two at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park, and one at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, he said.
Agriculture Department hunters will be deployed by the Fire Island National Seashore over the next two years if the judge allows them to kill more than 100 of the 132 deer at the William Floyd Estate.
The estate, which bears the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is just under one square mile, a size park officials say can support only 20 to 25 deer.
Starting next year, officials plan another two-year hunt in Fire Island's Wilderness area. That area is just over 1.7 square miles and about 91 deer lived there in 2018, park officials estimated. About 65 would be killed if the size of the herd is the same.
Robert Moses is about 1.4 square miles. It had about 70 deer per square mile, the parks department said, far more than it could sustain. No more hunts are planned for this year, the department said, though the lack of natural predators allows the herd to keep growing.
The hunts have proved deeply unpopular. Public comments the Seashore received overwhelmingly opposed them. Fire Islanders say the deer are quite tame, accustomed to being hand-fed treats, including bagels.
In November, the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute and the Whippany, New Jersey-based Wildlife Preserve Inc. sued the Seashore, arguing the hunts planned for the William Floyd Estate and on Fire Island breached deed restrictions governing land the Wildlife Preserve donated to the park decades ago. The hunts also violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the suit said.
The presiding judge, U.S. District Court Judge Sandra. J. Feuerstein, last year rejected another lawsuit that sought to block the hunts by arguing that same environmental law barred them.
The Agriculture Department objects to the terms hunting and culling.
"Wildlife Service professionals are not hunters," Espinosa said. "It is not a sport or a hunt but rather [a] well-researched method to reduce damage in the most efficient and effective manner possible," she said.