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Editorial: Deer-shoot is just a start to solve a severe problem

Deer are seen in front of homes in

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

In a public relations battle, hunters have a hard time beating Bambi. But as eastern Long Island grapples with a many-layered crisis caused by the explosion of its deer population, it is clear we are way past the point where squeamishness and doe-eyed sentiment should dictate public policy.

A plan being crafted by the Long Island Farm Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring in federal sharpshooters to kill as many as 3,000 deer this winter -- while making many of us wince -- is a sound idea. Details are still to be worked out and keeping residents safe from gunfire must be a priority, but this proposal makes sense. Those devising the plan want to repeat the mass hunt next winter. That's fine. But even two years of large-scale culling is merely triage; it must be followed by careful evaluation and a long-term plan to manage a deer population whose exponential growth has created major economic, public safety and health concerns.

The problem has been years in the making, and Long Islanders have been complicit in that. Development has removed natural habitat, forcing deer into ever-smaller areas. Then they discovered, much to our chagrin, that our farms and gardens are a good source of food. And with no predators, it is hardly surprising that they have flourished. State estimates put the herd on the East End and in Brookhaven at anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000. Besides the destruction of crops and home gardens -- vegetable and ornamental -- deer have been blamed for auto accidents, the spread of Lyme disease via ticks, and damage to forest habitat for other species.

Under the proposed solution, landowners must agree to allow the hunt to take place on their properties. And organizers promise the issue of safety for nearby residents will be paramount. But some of the details -- sharpshooters with night-vision goggles and rifles outfitted with silencers shooting in the dark of night from trucks and tree stands -- conjure images of government goons slaughtering the innocents of the wild. The details, however, make common sense. Goggles increase efficiency, silencers avoid scattering deer and alarming the public, and nighttime is when deer are most active. Other ideas -- such as sterilization of does -- have not been effective on a large scale. And recreational hunters alone have not been able to slow the herd's growth. Deer are a prolific species. One famous experiment years ago in Michigan put six white-tailed deer in a fenced-in, 2-square-mile preserve; in five years, the herd was 160 strong. In general, about 40 percent of females have to be removed every year just to keep a population stable.

One promising part of the plan is the call to donate the meat -- very lean and a good source of protein -- to food banks. Discussions about how to make that work are taking place, because it's not clear the infrastructure exists to deal with that many deer. Organizers also might want to consider donating venison to public institutions such as county jails or even school cafeterias, which would cut some costs and be a potential savings for taxpayers.

Those crafting the plan expect to receive the necessary state approvals. But even two successful hunts over the next two winters would leave Long Island with as many as 29,000 deer -- and counting. We need more than an annual influx of sharpshooters. This proposal is a start, but smart long-term planning is required to return to a state where taking care of deer is not pest control, but wildlife management.