White-tailed deer walk along Smith Point Beach Park in Mastic...

White-tailed deer walk along Smith Point Beach Park in Mastic Beach in January 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

A plan to cull whitetail deer at the William Floyd Estate that was suspended at the request of animal welfare groups can go forward, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein in Central Islip had granted a stay last week that delayed the Fire Island National Seashore's hunt to shoot and kill more than 100 of the 132 deer living on the square-mile estate over a two-year period, the first phase of which was set to last from Feb. 20 through March 31.

"The balance of hardships and the public interest weigh in Defendants’ favor," Feuerstein said in her decision to dissolve the temporary restraining order.

The National Park Service "may proceed with the cull," said a spokesman for U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue, in a statement. Donoghue's office represented the Seashore in the matter.

One of the plaintiffs, Animal Welfare Institute, expressed disappointment in the judge's decision, which  "clears the way for government sharpshooters to gun down deer on the William Floyd Estate."

"For decades, the National Park Service has protected these deer, but now the agency wants to implement a cruel plan based on dubious claims that deer damage estate plants," said the statement from the Washington, D.C., group. "This hunt is entirely unnecessary since the NPS has proven — during a 16-year experiment on Fire Island National Seashore — that immunocontraception can be used to non-lethally and humanely reduce deer numbers."

The group said it was perturbed that the National Park Service had reneged on an agreement not to kill any deer while a lawsuit is pending.

"We are concerned that the defendants would go back on their word and that the court would find this agreement unenforceable," the statement continued. "It makes us wonder if we can trust any representations made by NPS or FINS."

Feuerstein dismissed that argument.

"The authority cited by Plaintiffs involves enforcement of settlement agreements," she wrote. "They have provided no support whatsoever for the proposition that agreements made between counsel regarding the procedure of a case should be treated as valid, enforceable agreements."

Feuerstein had ruled in 2018 against another animal welfare group that also had sued the Seashore to block the hunt because it claimed that the lethal population control method violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the spokesman said. That law requires agencies to take a “hard look” in analyzing their problem-solving strategies.

Fire Island National Seashore officials have said the culling is necessary because the large herd is destroying landscape.

Animal welfare groups, however, have said nonlethal methods to control the herds, including contraception, are preferable and the culling by gunfire will prove unsuccessful.  Animal Welfare Institute and Whippany, New Jersey-based Wildlife Preserves Inc. filed an emergency motion seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction to stop the hunt. The judge granted the restraining order a week ago, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The two-year hunt was to be carried out by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees armed with shotguns. Such hunters are allowed to lure the deer with bait, such as apples, and at night, blind them with flashlights. The deer meat would be donated to food banks.

The two nonprofits sued the Fire Island National Seashore in November, arguing the hunt violated the National Environmental Policy Act and deed restrictions governing land donated to the Seashore. 

Though located on the mainland, the William Floyd Estate is part of the Fire Island National Seashore. 

Seashore officials have said tracts that size can support only 20 to 25 deer.

Starting next year, Seashore officials plan another two-year hunt in the park's Wilderness area on Fire Island. That section is just over 1.7 square miles and about 91 deer lived there in 2018, the agency estimated. About 65 of them would be killed if the herd's size doesn't change, under the park service's guidelines.

The animal welfare groups' lawsuit noted the overwhelming majority of public comments sent to the Seashore when it was crafting its plan opposed the hunt. Fire Islanders say the deer are remarkably tame, and accustomed to eating hand-fed treats, including bagels.

The lawsuit said the Seashore failed to consider and review a reasonable range of alternatives, including contraception, and failed to disclose all relevant data to the public. 

Seashore officials say the deer eat native trees, shrubs and saplings, preventing the forest from maturing, and limiting the other wildlife the park can support.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

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