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Just how many deer are on Shelter Island? New flyover data provides an answer

The Deer & Tick Committee estimates there is a total of 635 deer on the Island. The data is based on information released from a Jan. 24 flyover, using infrared video techniques from 1,600 feet. 

But Committee Chairman Dr. James Bevilacqua said at the April 7 committee meeting the number could be higher and, of course, doesn’t include the fawns that will be born this spring. That could result in approximately 750 deer on the Island, Dr. Bevilacqua said.

He called the estimate from the flyover “the most accurate number we have had.”

Animal Control Officer Beau Payne, who was not at the session, clarified the number, saying 635 was an absolute minimum, but not necessarily the total number. Still, he said that number was very close. The pilot doesn’t count anything he is not certain is a deer, Mr. Payne said.

“He assured me that the conditions on the night of the count were very conducive to highly accurate counting,” Mr. Payne said. 

He noted that an additional 138 deer were taken by hunters since the flyover and estimated the density currently is approximately 42 deer per square mile.

Mr. Payne said prior to the culling of the heard this season, it was estimated there were 54 deer per square mile. He speculated that previous estimates o deer at 80 per square mile were likely too low.

He now estimates the herd at 497 or 42 deer per square mile when the summer 2021 population was likely 750 deer or 64 per square mile.

A comparable harvest in the fall of 2021 through the winter of 2022 should reduce herd to goal of 50 deer per square mile.

Mr. Payne also offered other numbers reflecting both the recreational and “nuisance hunts:

• 402 deer were reported taken between Oct. 1 and March 31 as compared with 576 taken in the same period in 2019-20

• 138 taken of the total were taken during the nuisance hunt between Feb 1 and the end of March compared with 235 taken in the same period last year

• The goal was to reduce the herd by 100 deer from high priority areas of the Island with an emphasis on adult females

• There were 107 deer taken from 19 properties during the nuisance hunt as compared with 117 last year

• More than 2,800 pounds of meat have been donated compared with 3,500 last year

Years ago, the committee had a flyover with results they described as unreliable. But the pilot who handled this year’s flyover is a highly regarded professional and has been hired by many other communities.

Dr. Bevilacqua said the committee had hoped to see the deer population reduced to about 50 per square mile, but as with all aspects of life in the past year, both the recreational hunt and the “nuisance hunt” — special allowances for municipalities also known as deer damage permits, issued by the New York State Department of Conservation — in February and March were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because there were more full-time residents on the Island through months when the recreational hunt was taking place between Oct. 1, 2020, and Jan. 31, 2021, there were sites hunted in the past that couldn’t safely be used this year. There were also fewer hunters participating in the recreational hunt. But one more factor entered in the equation: a reduced herd that took hunters longer to spot deer.

There was general agreement that every effort should be made in the year ahead to increase the number of hunters and the number of sites the town can manage for hunters.

Even if COVID-19 becomes a non factor in the 2021-22 hunting seasons it remains to be seen how many of those who relocated to the Island will decide to stay, Dr. Bevilacqua said.

Once the deer population has been reduced to the 50% mark, he said he’s sure how to further reduce the herd, or what should be the next target percentage. In the past, the committee has said once it reached that number, it would try to cut that number in half again over time.

There was general agreement that every effort should be made in the year ahead to increase the number of hunters and the number of sites the town can manage for hunters.

Public health and education emerged as major concentrations

Returning to the main reason for the committee’s existence and efforts to reduce the deer herd is the need to reduce ticks that spread Lyme and other tick-borne diseases to people, members agreed.

Science and data must be the drivers of the committee’s effort to deal with the effort to reduce the incidence of tick-borne diseases, Councilman Jim Colligan said. He’s the Town Board’s liaison to the committee and was a long-time committee member before being elected to office.

One of the best means of tracking the efforts to control the deer herd on which ticks feed for blood meals before transmitting diseases to people is to get more information on the number of patients seeing doctors on the Island after reporting tick bites, Dr. Bevilacqua said. But he cautioned that the number of prescriptions for doxycycline doesn’t necessarily tell the story, because that antibiotic is also used for other illnesses as well as Lyme disease.

Member Julia Weisenberg has been chairing an education subcommittee that at the end of March hosted a cooking session on preparing venison that is available without charge from a refrigerated unit at the Recycling Center. The Zoom session enabled Ms. Weisenberg to spread the word about the efforts the Deer & Tick Committee has been making and to disseminate important information about tick-borne diseases.

She described the session as “a creative brain dump” among participants. There was feedback from participants about wanting more such sessions.

She also pointed to a survey available on the town website under the committee tab that lists the Deer & Tick Committee. As of the April 7 meeting, 253 people had responded to the survey and the committee hopes for more responses to help members focus on public needs with respect to protecting public health. 

One suggestion Ms. Weisenberg made was that the committee consider launching a Facebook page with information, since social media is a means many people use for information. Committee members seemed open to the idea, although there was no firm decision made.