Ron Coons, of Laurel, speaks to the panel at the...

Ron Coons, of Laurel, speaks to the panel at the forum in Peconic. (Jan. 16, 2014) Credit: Randee Daddona

Federal and town officials said Thursday night the deer population on eastern Long Island had grown too large for hunters or birth control to reduce and said they planned to move forward with using federal sharpshooters to kill as many as 3,000 deer beginning in February.

"We have a real crisis in town, and that's too many white-tailed deer," Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said Thursday at a deer forum in the Peconic Community Center in Southold that drew more than 100 residents.

In this agricultural North Fork town, almost all speakers considered the overpopulation of deer a matter of course -- and blamed them for car accidents, millions of dollars in crop and plant damage and what they believe is a correlation with tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease.

Claire Kennedy, of Southold, said her three sons have tested positive for Lyme disease and babesiosis. "I'm not here to debate how it's done. I'm grateful you're here," she said to applause from the audience.

The opposition to the plan last night came from bow hunters, frustrated by hunting restrictions, who view the sharpshooters as competition.

Federal officials are set in February to use techniques that hunters can't -- silenced rifles, bait to attract deer, hunting at night and shooting from the back of trucks.

"We're doing this to feed our families," said Michael Tessitore of East Quogue, founder of the group Hunters for Deer. "You're not going to take our deer -- you can't do it."

There was only one speaker who opposed the cull as an animal rights issue.

"When you see a deer, you get a beautiful feeling," said Ron Coons, 66, a part-time resident of Laurel. "They're the reason a lot of people from Nassau like to come out here."

Martin Lowney, New York State director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program, said contraception for deer, injected by dart or by hand, isn't feasible.

"Somebody here will have to win the New York lottery if you want to do contraception," he said.The USDA spent 20 years trying to develop birth control for deer, and only has one form that's suitable. He estimated that it would cost $2,000 a deer to sterilize each animal. To manage the population of an estimated 30,000 deer in Suffolk County, 15,000 does would have to be sterilized every two years -- at a cost of $30 million.

Lowney also said hunters can't take out enough deer to stabilize or reduce the population. He said 10,000 deer would have to be killed. Right now, 2,500 deer are shot by hunters, 925 are killed by residents getting special state permits, and an unknown number are killed by cars.

Lowney tried to assure the crowd it was safe, saying that the USDA has never had a firearm accident. "We could humanely shoot all the deer in the brain from 25 yards away," he said.

He acknowledged that scientific evidence has been mixed on the correlation between Lyme disease and deer, since ticks also live on birds and other mammals. But he called deer a "big cafeteria" for ticks.Russell said Southold has committed to spending $25,000 on the cull and said before the meeting that he viewed this year as a pilot program, that, if successful, could be replicated year after year. Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said he has secured a $200,000 state grant and still planned to move forward with it in February.

Russell, Gergela and Lowney said that in the long term, hunters would play a key role in reducing and maintaining a smaller deer population.

While the cull was planned for 40 nights, Gergela said the number of deer shot would depend on the funding available.

Other towns and villages have or are considering a similar action, including East Hampton Town and East Hampton Village. Animal-rights activists on the South Fork have filed a legal challenge to block the cull.

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