Wildlife rescuers are fighting a new state rule that they said forces them to ignore or euthanize wounded deer.
State Department of Environmental Conservation officials on Feb. 10 sent the state’s 1,400 licensed wildlife rehabilitators a notice that the treatment of adult white-tailed deer is “prohibited.” It also states that fawns may be rehabilitated only between April 15 and Sept. 15.
DEC officials did not cite a reason in the notice. Rehabilitators said the change came without warning and forces them to euthanize animals that could otherwise be saved.
“We try to help all wildlife,” said Virginia Frati, founder and executive director of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, a nonprofit in Hampton Bays. “We’re not in the business of euthanizing them if it’s not medically necessary.”
The center filed a lawsuit May 11 challenging the rule in state Supreme Court in Riverhead. A state Supreme Court justice issued a temporary restraining order allowing the center’s staff to continue holding an injured deer that has lived there for several years, but the rule remains in place statewide. A hearing is scheduled for June 14.
“Overnight, the DEC has changed the primary purpose of a Wildlife Rehabilitator from one of healer and caretaker of injured wildlife, to the Government’s executioner,” the center’s legal action said.
A DEC spokesman wrote in an email Tuesday that department officials do not comment on pending litigation. The state attorney general’s office is representing the department in the case.
Frati said DEC officials, in a recent meeting with wildlife rehabilitators, said adult deer could become too accustomed to humans during treatment, jeopardizing their survival in the wild.
“That has never happened in 20 years that I’ve been rehabbing adult deer,” Frati said. “You cannot tame an adult deer. Once you let them out, they run and never look back.”
The center rescues 50 to 60 deer a year on eastern Long Island, many with injuries from vehicle collisions, entanglement in fences or dog attacks. More than half of adults must be euthanized, but fawns tend to fare better, Frati said.
Without the justice’s order, center staff would have had to euthanize a resident deer known as Jane Doe on May 15. Frati said the animal suffered vision loss in a vehicle accident, and may be used in the future to foster rescued fawns.
Frati said her center has stopped responding to reports of injured deer as a result of the rule.
Licensed rehabilitators in the state, many of them volunteers, do not charge fees or receive government funds. Frati’s nonprofit has five rehabilitators on staff and about 15 volunteers.
Southampton Town Police Chief Robert Pearce, whose officers are routinely called to shoot deer struck by vehicles, wrote a letter on March 4 to DEC officials opposing the rule.
Pearce said his officers are sometimes reluctant to shoot because of potential danger to bystanders, and have relied on the rescue center to treat or euthanize wounded deer for about 15 years.