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Fire Island deer would be culled under National Park Service plan

A white-tailed deer in Saltaire on Fire Island

A white-tailed deer in Saltaire on Fire Island on Dec. 15, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

National Park Service officials would like to use a combination of hunting, birth control and fencing of sensitive areas to significantly reduce the number of white-tailed deer on Fire Island and at the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach.

An estimated 300 deer live within the Fire Island National Seashore boundaries, and park officials say the voracious eaters threaten historic plants and shrubs, including a maritime holly forest that is one of only two in the world.

A 480-page deer-management plan published Thursday in the Federal Register outlines a number of alternatives to manage the animals, which have no local predators and whose numbers have been expanding since the 1960s.

The preferred choice is to cull the deer herd to about 20 to 25 deer per square mile and then maintain the herd through approved contraception. In some areas, like Davis Park and Kismet, the density can be as high as about 265 deer per square mile.

Residents tell stories of deer eating their ornamental plants, popping open garbage cans, and eating food off decks. But the does and bucks also are symbols of the rural nature of the Island not far from Manhattan’s bustle.

“There’s an ecosystem here and the deer are part of the ecosystem but not the only part of the ecosystem,” Seashore Superintendent Christopher Soller said. “We don’t want to eliminate the deer population completely. We want to have a balanced system.”

Evidence of deer feeding is seen throughout the Sunken Forest, a maritime ecosystem home to holly plants and trees. Most small bushes are bare and trees are bald on the bottom where deer feed.

“They just can’t grow bigger because they are being heavily browsed by deer,” Lindsay Ries, a wildlife biologist with the Seashore, said of the holly.

With no predators, the deer take advantage of the natural habitat and residential plantings.

“As the deer population rose, the percentage of ground cover just plummeted,” Elizabeth Rogers, a Seashore park ranger, said of the habitat changes over time.

About one-third to two-thirds of the population could be culled, but that number could change if fencing, education and other measures reduce the impact on the ecosystem. “There really are no magic numbers to work with,” Ries said. “The plan really allows for a lot of adapting.”

Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Bridgehampton-based Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island, said the Seashore should abandon hunting and use contraceptives similar to ones used in the park between 1995 and 2009 that cut the deer population in half.

“If you have an option that’s smart, that doesn’t involve maiming, killing, torturing, then it’s probably a good choice,” Chamberlin said.

An educational campaign warning people of the dangers of feeding deer, their voracious appetites and unsafe encounters is a key part of the deer management plan. Fencing off large parts of the Sunken Forest and the William Floyd Estate, also operated by the Seashore, is part of the plan to keep historic and native plants off the deer menu.

“Deer are not the only resource we are responsible for,” Soller said. “It’s really finding a balance between the different areas and making sure one resource does not take precedence over another.”

A 30-day moratorium on taking any action is expected to begin Jan. 8, after which the Park Service’s regional administrator will approve the plan.

“It’s an extremely complex, complicated management issue and I look forward to reading the park’s proposal,” Fire Island Association president Suzy Goldhirsch said. “I think we’re making progress because we’re coming to some sort of a management plan.”

After that, the park will create an implementation plan. And any work is contingent on funding, Rogers said.

Soller said the park supports an alternative that allows for fencing, hunting, contraception, education and other options because it provides flexibility to deal with the issues, from risks of increased Lyme disease to destroyed habitats.

“You don’t just do one thing to control the population,” Soller said.

If hunting is allowed, it will be in the Seashore’s wilderness areas, not populated hamlets and villages, Soller said.

A big focus will be on educating residents and visitors not to feed the deer because it conditions them to approach people and even rely on their food or garbage.

A section of the plan also talks about when deer get too close. “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 the behavior through observation,” the plan says.

Within the boundaries of the park are 17 private communities and Smith Point County Park. Some people enjoy the deer, some do not.

“It’s very hard for us as a group to make a statement because there is a big variety of opinions,” Dawn Lippert, president of Fire Island Year Round Residents Association, said about the management plan.

Culling deer herds is not new to the National Park Service. Since 1995, officials have been shooting deer at Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site in Pennsylvania. Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., has a similar program.

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