How to deal with deer? It’s a quandary that has challenged Shelter Island since humans joined the animals here.
In 1916, an attempt to remove and relocate all of Shelter Island’s deer drew a large and unusual crowd of sightseers. That May 9, a Sunday, the New York Times reported, “Hotel proprietors in Greenport and Sag Harbor received capacity reservations tonight from persons who were coming to the end of Long Island tomorrow to see the bloodless hunt of the fleet-footed animals.”
An overabundance of deer seemed to threaten the well-being of Shelter Island residents, and the town’s supervisor and local farmers called for help. The situation would be repeated many times in the decades to come, as human residents of the Island have struggled to coexist with the hoofed ones .
White-tailed deer are native to Shelter Island, and lived here long before European people arrived in the early 17th century. Archaeological evidence shows that the Manhanset people, who were Shelter Island’s original human inhabitants, were not only skillful hunters, and ate a lot of venison, but also used deer hides for clothing and bones for tools.
European settlers cleared large parts of Long Island for farming, the kind of human activity that increases the deer population, since deer thrive on the edges between forest and field. Deer numbers may have dipped on Long Island in the mid- and late-1700s, as indicated by worried correspondence between Henry Lloyd and John Lloyd of Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island in June of 1773.
“I think we are lucky in preserving the deer,” Henry wrote, “which doubtless will increase if they remain unmolested. I’ll readily join my brethren in laying every restriction for their preservation.”
Under control … and not
In the 1800s, unregulated hunting, along with coyotes and wolves that preyed on deer, kept the population under control on Long Island so effectively that by 1900 deer were rarely seen. In the early part of the 20th century, management of Long Island deer shifted away from hunting to conservation and protection of the few remaining wild.
When Francis “Borax King” Smith, a businessman who made his fortune in the West, created an estate on Shelter Island in the late 1890s, one of the amenities was a private deer park, which he populated with 40 western black-tailed mule deer, so named for their large mule-like ears. Such deer parks were popular with the very wealthy at the time, but less for hunting than as a kind of personal zoo. Escapees were common, and on Dec. 18, 1909, a 150-pound buck swimming toward North Haven was spotted by people on the South Ferry who wrestled it aboard and returned the animal to Francis Smith’s deer park.
Sometimes Smith’s escaped deer did not return, and intermingling with the remaining local white-tailed deer, they reestablished Shelter Island’s herd in such numbers that within a decade, deer had become a nuisance.
“The cause of all this trouble is a rich man’s fad,” said Supervisor Smith, addressing the New York State Conservation Commission in April of 1916. He was followed by Shelter Island landowner Matthias Nicoll and a few farmers who described rows of corn ruined as the deer feasted on the cobs, and fields of oats crushed by deer who lounged among the plants.
Asked how many there were, Smith said, “It is a hard matter. The woods are full of them, it is hard to count them.” Based on the testimony, the Commission estimated there were at least 150 deer on Shelter Island. The Island farmers, led by Smith, asked the Commission to allow the inhabitants of the Island to “take wild deer.”
At first, the Commission proposed to do the shooting, but when this became known there was a public outcry, and offers to purchase live deer came from all over the Northeast, along with contributions toward an effort to capture and relocate the deer. William Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, pledged $500.
On May 5, 1916, the Suffolk-Times wrote, “Responding to thousands of protests State Conservation Commissioner George D. Pratt has countermanded the order for the slaughter of the red deer and let it be known that the whole problem would be reconsidered. The hunt was scheduled for Monday last and a half dozen deputies with their guns arrived in Greenport for the purpose … it is understood that the order to turn Shelter Island into a game shambles was revoked on the governor’s personal instruction.”
Instead, after conferring with officials in Albany, Division Chief Byron T. Cameron led the effort to corral and relocate the deer. The Suffolk-Times wrote, “Some of the local hunters say that the deputies will have more of a job than they figure on in catching the elusive deer, but Mr. Cameron and his picked men represent the most competent hunters in the state who know every habit of the deer.”
An exercise in cruelty
The debacle took place over a weekend, with parties of onlookers spooking the deer, and observers horrified by the treatment of the animals. The Suffolk-Times on May 12 reported, “The officers of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Association said that no fault could be found with the way the wardens were conducting the work, except that the entire procedure was inhumane.”
In the end, 14 deer from the Shelter Island herd were captured, eight of them died before they could be moved, and the remaining six were sent to live in a park in Utica, N.Y. A buck died shortly after arriving. The New York Times estimated that each of the 14 deer captured had cost the State of New York about $250. The Park Board of Utica paid $150 for the six that got out alive, shipping included.
In a May 12 report to the Conservation Commission on the “Deer Matter,” D. C. Speenburgh, a Confidential Agent, reported, “I find that most of the natives with whom I talked were not in favor of having the deer taken from Shelter Island … that it would have been better for the state to allow an open season in the fall, and exterminate them in that way.”
Ginny Frati with the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hampton Bays says capturing and relocating deer is still not viable today. “People call us all the time and want us to round up and take in an injured deer or a deer that’s gotten into their yard and can’t get out,” she said. “But we can’t do it.”
It was not until 1970 that New York State established a legal hunting season for deer on Long Island.
Today, the Shelter Island deer herd is thought to be well over a thousand, and recreational deer hunting at Mashomack, Sylvester Manor and on a few private properties accounted in 2017 for an annual harvest of about 450 deer.