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Head of the Harbor to test new tech to help manage deer population

The village forbids hunting under a law that bans discharge of most firearms. A proposal to lift a decades-long ban on bowhunting was dropped after opposition.

An image taken from a trail camera shows

An image taken from a trail camera shows deer in Head of the Harbor on Aug. 17, 2018.  Photo Credit: Avalon Park and Preserve

Researchers will test in Head of the Harbor the usefulness of facial recognition software, drone-mounted infrared cameras and a dart-delivered contraceptive to track, count and contain a white-tailed deer population that some residents and local officials say has grown too large.

Representatives from the Humane Society of the United States and Tufts University at a Jan. 16 village meeting laid out a high-tech approach they say could offer an alternative to recreational hunting, which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has called the “simplest approach” to population reduction.

“There’s a hundred-year history in the United States of using hunting to manage deer population, but the United States in 2019 is not the same as the United States in 1919,” said Allen Rutberg, a researcher and director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “In places where we can’t have hunters and can’t have trappers, we need something other than hunting.”

The village, which local officials say is one of the few Long Island municipalities to pursue nonlethal methods of population management, forbids hunting under a law that bans discharge of most firearms, including bows. Village officials in 2015 proposed lifting a decades-long ban on bowhunting, but backed off after strong opposition from residents.

No official count of deer exists for Head of the Harbor, a forested village of two-acre residential lots and sprawling parcels such as Avalon Park and Preserve, but local officials say about 600 deer live in northern Smithtown.

Mayor Douglas Dahlgard said last week that the village was “overrun.” The police chief, Charles Lohmann, has said that deer are killed about once a week in the village, hit by vehicles or impaled by fences. Deer, along with white-footed mice, have helped make Suffolk County the national leader in tick-borne infections, specialists have said.

The study that Rutberg and Kali Pereira, senior wildlife field manager for the Humane Society of the United States, will start this winter is not intended to manage the deer population, though other studies have had that effect. It will instead test technologies that could improve the cost-effectiveness and practicality of the immunocontraceptive vaccine PZP.

In March, the researchers will capture, tag and treat up to 90 adult female deer with the vaccine. “Capturing deer is technically challenging, expensive and time-consuming,” Rutberg said; administering the vaccine by dart gun could cut the cost of treatment significantly.

To track the study group, researchers will use implantable microchips. They will count the area deer population using the decidedly low-tech technique of driving around high population areas and counting. Other counting methods will include drone observation and analyzing trail camera images. Facial recognition software may automate that task, Rutberg said: “If your iPhone can unlock by looking at your face, we may be able to do something similar with deer.”

The DEC takes a dim view of fertility control, warning in its 2018 deer management handbook that methods including PZP use are "extremely labor-intensive and expensive" and have not achieved population-wide success "except in small isolated populations in enclosures or on islands." 

Suffolk County Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), who sponsored legislation that revived the county's tick control and advisory committee in 2016, said she would follow the study closely in light of what she called “epidemic” levels of tick-borne diseases. “Every science-based solution has to be explored,” she said.  

Tufts University researchers say PZP treatment of deer can reduce pregnancy rates by 80 to 90 percent, leading to reduction of suburban deer populations by 5 to 10 percent per year.

But New York State Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Bill Fonda said fertility control on its own won't manage the deer population: "Proposals for fertility control on free-ranging deer in areas with abundant deer populations and associated deer-related damage should be developed as part of a long-term, multiyear integrated deer population management strategy that includes the lethal removal of deer."

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