Deer are seen in front of homes in populated residential...

Deer are seen in front of homes in populated residential neighborhoods in Southold. (Dec. 4, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters aim to kill as many as 3,000 deer on eastern Long Island this winter in the largest federal deer removal program in New York State history.

The cull, planned over 40 nights starting in February, would be an aggressive step to curb a white-tailed deer population estimated to be from 25,000 to 35,000 on the East End and in Brookhaven that residents blame for car wrecks, the spread of Lyme disease and the destruction of crops, forests and home gardens.

The cull -- backed by the Long Island Farm Bureau and key officials on the East End -- would involve agents shooting with night-vision equipment and silenced rifles, and from the backs of trucks and atop tree stands.

"We're not talking about wildlife management anymore," said Southold Supervisor Scott Russell, who supports the effort. "We're talking about pest control."

A final agreement between the Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program, which would conduct the cull, is expected by the end of the month.

Wildlife Services has conducted smaller deer-removal projects on Long Island, but Allen Gosser, assistant state director of the program, said the February cull would be the first "landscape level" effort to comprehensively reduce a deer population.

Local opposition has been slight. At a forum in Southold, about 250 residents complained about the deer.

"I've never been to a meeting where there was practically no opposition to an idea like this," Gosser said.

Anti-hunting activists oppose the cull, saying that much of the sentiment against deer is unfounded.

"Deer have become a convenient scapegoat for all sorts of things," said Bill Crain, president of the East Hampton Group for Wildlife. Crain, a psychologist, and his wife, Ellen, have held hunger strikes in the past four years at the January start of firearm hunting season.

"To expand hunting or bring in a cull is incredibly misguided and cruel," he said.

A petition against the cull at the website reports that 5,000 deer would be "slaughtered." The petition has recorded more than 2,600 signatures from local residents and people around the world since it was posted on Nov. 25.

But a July 29 letter from the Agriculture Department to the farm bureau estimated that sharpshooters could kill 2,400 to 3,000 deer. Gosser said that with a late-winter start, the estimate is now between 2,000 and 3,000 deer.

A push for bow hunters

In addition to the planned cull, East End officials are pushing state legislation to allow bow hunters to come within 150 feet of residences, down from the current 500-foot restriction. Southold is urging residents to sign permission slips to allow hunters on their properties, and the town wants to reimburse bow hunters for their arrows.

The Long Island Farm Bureau estimates that deer-related crop damage costs growers as much as $3 million a year. Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said he is confident the cull will take place even if some local governments don't participate.

"Whether people like it or not, we need to take out a few deer," Gergela said.

Southold, East Hampton Town and Brookhaven have budgeted money toward the estimated $300,000 cost of the cull or committed to the program, as have East Hampton Village and Sagaponack. Other town and village officials said they are waiting for the final plan.

Gergela sent a letter asking all East End towns and villages to provide written commitments to the farm bureau before Jan. 1 if they want sharpshooters in their areas.

Gosser said the culls would focus on does, the female deer, which represent a larger part of the population. The deer would be shot in the head or neck so they die quickly and humanely, he added.

In more developed areas, the plan would include "drop nets" to trap deer. They would then be "immediately euthanized by a shot to the brain by a small-caliber suppressed weapon," according to Gergela's letter. Sharpshooters in stands would kill deer attracted by corn or apples, Gosser said.

"For it to have any kind of success, it has to be large-scale like this," he added. "They're beautiful creatures, but over a period of time they become despots. It would be nice to get them back to cherished status again."

The meat would be donated to Long Island food pantries, Gosser said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that the area's deer herd is mostly in Brookhaven and the five East End towns. In recent years, deer have spread west into Nassau County and even into Queens, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation deer management plan released last year.

Gosser said he believed that to effectively reduce the deer population, the effort should continue annually for three years. Gergela said he hoped the program would continue for at least two years.

Gergela said he expects to be able to get $200,000 from the state. He wants to supplement it with other money from towns and villages.

Brookhaven set aside $5,000 in the town's budget, but Supervisor Ed Romaine is waiting to see the final agreement between the agriculture department and the farm bureau before committing, said Jack Krieger, a town spokesman.

Southold has budgeted $25,000 and East Hampton Town has committed $15,000 for the program.

East Hampton Village is to pass a resolution this month to allow and fund the cull, said Mayor Paul Rickenbach, who described the deer issue as a "public health crisis."

Sagaponack also passed a resolution to spend $15,000 on the cull, contingent on Southampton and East Hampton towns, which surround the village, also participating.

Action plan needed

Other towns have not committed. Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said in a statement that the town "needs an action plan, and soon," but wouldn't take a position on the cull.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the town would like to participate in the federal sharpshooter program but doesn't have the money. Instead, he is pushing to open more areas for hunters.

Shelter Island Supervisor James Dougherty said his town is considering the plan. "I'm delighted to hear of the effort," he said.

Shelter Island invested in feeding stations for deer that roll a tick-killing chemical on the animals as they eat. Dougherty said those units have effectively controlled tick populations on the island.

Tom Wickham, whose family owns 300 acres of farmland in Cutchogue and New Suffolk, said he has concerns about the safety of the sharpshooter program, as well as increasing the number of hunters roaming North Fork residential areas.

"Being good shots isn't enough," he said. "I don't want people on my farm that I haven't vetted myself."

To protect his peach and apple crop, Wickham has obtained a damage permit from the state, which allows him to bring in hunters to kill as many as 60 deer a year. Bucks rub their antlers against young peach and apple trees, scraping off bark, breaking branches and eventually killing the trees, he said.

"They're decimating the orchards," Wickham said.

He added that the problem is made worse as many other farms as well as vineyards have erected 8-foot-tall deer fences around their property, pushing deer into unfenced areas.

The controversy over the correlation between deer population and the population of deer ticks "is about as old as Lyme disease itself," said Jorge Benach, chairman of Stony Brook University's department of molecular genetics and microbiology, whose research specialty focuses on the tick-borne disease.

Deer play an important role as a source of food for ticks, he said. If the deer population was reduced, "you would see a decrease in number of ticks, for sure. But deer are not the only host," Benach noted, adding that ticks also feast on dogs, raccoons, possums and humans.

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