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Charity’s Column: Deer hunting season with a bow starting up

White-tailed deer are beautiful animals, tan in the summer with white on their throat, belly and tail, and gray-brown in the winter.

They breed in the fall, bear young in the spring, and the older males (bucks) grow magnificent antlers that they shed every year in January.

There are way too many of them on Shelter Island.

Saturday, Sept. 10, is the opening of bowhunting season for deer on Shelter Island, a fact that may be alarming to people — I’m married to one — who grew up in a city, and learned to steer clear of firearms and large wild animals. If the weekend after Labor Day sounds like an early start for a hunting season that most summer residents never knew about, it is.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation says allowing some hunting to take place early helps decrease the deer population. “Early hunting seasons are a great opportunity to mentor and introduce new hunters to hunting,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said recently. “By participating in these seasons, hunters help manage wildlife populations toward socially and ecologically desirable levels while enjoying time outdoors with family and friends.”

If you are a person who likes to get your USDA-inspected meat on a neatly-wrapped foam tray in the grocery store, you may not be happy to know that every year, hundreds of deer are killed, slaughtered and eaten here. Many of them are distributed to the community through the Town’s venison program, that makes cuts such as backstrap fillet, stew meat and ground meat available to any resident who needs food.

The meat becomes grilled steaks (I’m partial to a chimichurri sauce with that), chili and curry. Thousands of pounds of meat have been distributed this way since the Shelter Island venison program started.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find a time on Shelter Island when humans and large animals lived in a better balance than they do now, but it was long before the forests were turned into lima bean and potato fields, and then into back yards and gardens.

Once humans cleared the forests and developed the land, native white-tailed deer had fewer areas to live in peace, and many more places to eat. Which is why complaining about the deer problem is sort of like leaving cheese on the kitchen counters every night and then complaining about the mice.

There was a deer census last spring; a flyover of the Island that counted 640 deer. It took place in advance of spring births, so there may now be as many as 1,000 deer here, about twice as many as the land will support. You’ve probably noticed them on roadsides and backyards.

The DEC and the Town agree, an important part of the solution is to recruit new bowhunters on Shelter Island, local people who understand the realities of hunting and the conservation issues around hunting, how hunting controls the deer population and improves the forest.

In the hunting season that’s just beginning, bowhunters will likely harvest hundreds of deer, and every one of them can be food. A vital part of Shelter Island’s program is to support hunters after they kill a deer with resources, especially if they decide to donate.

The Town’s venison distribution program provides a free and safe source of meat for Island families. Since the program began in 2016, over 16,000 pounds of venison has been donated by hunters — and that’s a lot of grilled backstrap and venison chili.

On Thursday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m., four people who are intimately familiar with the ways and habits of deer, as well as why and how we hunt them, will talk about their experiences at the Shelter Island Library.

Beau Payne, Julia Weisenberg, Jackie Arthur and Doug Sherrod are hunters, animal lovers and environmentalists. Ask Doug about his recipe for a country pâté that’s better than foie gras, and much less expensive. 

They’ll tackle tough questions. Are there really too many deer on Shelter Island, and if the answer is yes, what’s the harm? If I got a deer, what could I do with it? Is hunting with a bow and arrow better than hunting with a shotgun?

How do you get started if you’ve never done it before?  If you are interested in the answers to these questions, come join the discussion.

No camouflage required.