Residents pack meeting, call for action on deer management

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Residents filled the Town Hall meeting room to hear Police Chief James Read on the town’s deer management program.

On Tuesdays the Town Board listens and debates at its work sessions, but almost never acts, waiting to make decisions at the regular monthly meetings.

But this week’s session was different. After a lengthy discussion between residents and Police Chief James Read, the board changed one aspect of hunting policy for the Island. The move was forced by what everyone in the packed Town Hall meeting room agreed was a crisis brought on by an out of control deer population.

Currently only residents and full time Island workers are allowed to hunt deer on the Island. But after a suggestion by Dering Harbor Mayor Tim Hogue and seconded by Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr., hunters will be permitted to include guests when they go for deer on the Island.

The minor change — and the more than 20 residents who showed up at the work session were demanding more significant ones in the future — was made at a Town Board meeting that, for the first time since reports this summer of spikes in tick borne illnesses, got down to brass tacks about ways to reduce the herd.

Reinvigorating the town’s Deer and Tick Committee, after the resignation of Chairwoman Patricia Shillingburg in September, was also on the agenda, with the board interviewing four candidates in executive session to fill two posts. Councilman Ed Brown, who called for the meeting, said it was imperative the board name the new members at its Friday meeting and begin to act on new initiatives. All members agree that using 4-poster units that kill ticks on feeding deer and methods to cull the deer herd should be on equal footing in the committee’s mission.

Resident Ed Barr spoke for many in the room when he said there was no more important issue facing the town. It “is front and center. It affects our health, our safety” and quality of life, Mr. Barr said. Worries about money to deal with the situation are “ludicrous,” he added. “This is a town responsibility to get the herd down.”

Mr. Brown was in agreement, referring to former Island resident Governor Hugh Carey, who noted that the first responsibility of government is the health and welfare of the people.

Police Chief James Read, who runs the deer management program for the town, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the issue, outlining the recreational hunting seasons, which are archery from October 1 to December 1 and firearms from January 6 to January 31. There is also the so-called “nuisance” hunting season or “deer damage” season that runs from February 1 to March 31. Nuisance hunting helps communities overrun with deer by allowing special licenses, also known as deer damage permits, issued by the New York State Department of Conservation. Those qualifying for the special licenses are individual farm owners, for example, or municipalities, which can then designate an agent to hunt. Damage permits also allow night hunting and baiting for deer.

Chief Read noted some changes the DEC has instigated for hunting, one being that the nuisance program is banned from competing with the recreational season.

So far this season, on town-managed properties, 62 deer have been taken. There are 14 hunters in the town’s deer management program and six have taken deer, the chief reported. On other properties not managed by the town, about 45 deer have been taken, Chief Read said.

Several times during the meeting, Chief Read returned to a question: “How do you measure success?” Meaning, what number does he tell hunters is acceptable in reducing the herd.

A significant part of the meeting focused on numbers, as in how many deer live on Shelter Island and how many deer are killed. Chief Read said it was nearly impossible to pry accurate figures out of  the DEC. Several residents said this was unacceptable and the state agency should be forced to reveal information.

“But how do we measure success?” Chief Read asked again. “If we call the DEC and they say 25 were taken this week, or 100, pick a number, what does that mean?”

“That we didn’t take as many as last year, Chief,” Mr. Brown said.

“I’ll ask, ‘How many do you want to take this year?’”

Mr. Hogue answered, “As many as possible.”

Although agreeing that accurate numbers were important, resident Don Bindler said, “We’re beating our heads against the wall to find a way to accurately measure the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. Whatever that number is, everyone agrees there are far too many deer on the Island.”

Richard Kelly, who hunts, said that one method to improve culling the herd was to give back options to hunters that the DEC has taken away. From 2006 to 2009 nuisance hunting was from October 1 through February 1 with baiting and night hunting allowed, Mr. Kelly said. Shotgun hunting was also allowed earlier in the season. But now the nuisance season doesn’t begin until February 1.

“You can’t expect the same results out of hunters and remove these tools,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s unfair, it’s illogical and it’s absolutely unproductive.”

Another method is to use U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters to come in to cull the herd. Mike Scheibel, Mashomack Preserve’s natural resources manager, and Jennifer Zacha, a police department employee who assists Chief Read on deer management, attended a conference early last month hosted by the Long Island Farm Bureau and the USDA Wildlife Services program. The two entities are seeking to create a regional deer management solution, supplanting a grant of $200,000 by asking East End towns to contribute $25,000 and villages to contribute $15,000. The money would then be spent on  sharpshooter teams culling herds by night shooting, baiting and the use of silencers.

Chief Read pointed out that a Southold property owners association had paid $10,000 for USDA sharpshooters and over two night’s shooting last year killed 12 deer and three nights this year killed a total of 25 deer.

But Mr. Scheibel said there have been reports from other communities of 70 deer taken a night using mobile teams of a driver, spotter and shooter.

Mr. Scheibel said it was important to maximize both the recreational and nuisance hunting programs. But he noted that the regional effort using sharpshooters is an opportunity to partner in with a larger group of people with similar problems. “If you’re not getting the job done, you have to seriously consider partnering in to the bigger effort,” Mr. Scheibel said. Chief Read was unconvinced and said the town should stay the course with its current programs with no changes until next year, but said he was only giving his opinion, and it was up to the Town Board to act.

Other ideas to be considered are providing incentives to get more hunters in the field through a raffle system and allowing hunters to kill bucks. Presently, the town has a policy of only allowing the taking of does.