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Volunteer group tackling deer problem would like town to hire paid part-timer to help address issue

File photo: Peter Blasl

The deer population in Southold Town continues to spark fierce contention.

At today’s town board work session, members of the North Fork Deer Management Alliance pitched a new idea —  the town’s hiring of a wildlife manager that will “help us to alleviate this problem.”

The new position, John Severini said, could be part-time, and would help to educate the public and help convince private property owners to allow for hunting on their land, a point they said is critical to eradicating the swelling herd.

New  York State Department of Environmental Conservation data indicates that Southold has done “very well” compared to other areas, coming in third with the number of deer harvested, at 581, Severini said.

But, with the total number of deer thought to be around 3,500, harvesting them at a rate of less than 600 per year won’t reduce the herd size. While he said the town had tried its best, the numbers countywide indicate approximately 35,000 deer; if the town continues to harvest less than 3,500 per year, the problem will continue to escalate.

Number of deer-related accidents continues to climb

The number of accidents related to deer continues to climb, Severini said. According to data provided by Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley, between 2000 and 2002, the average number of accidents per year was 140. Between 2003 to 2005, the average number of deer related accidents was 183; and from 2006 to 2014, that number was 229.

“The number is not going in the right direction,” Severini said.

Also, the number of accidents in the last 42 days of 2014 totaled 45; in 2014, he added, there were 388 deer carcasses picked up by the town highway department.

Of the 881 car accidents in Southold in 2014, 229 involved deer, or 25 percent, Severini said, “an alarmingly high number”.

State Farm estimates the average cost to repair a vehicle after a deer hit is $3,314, or just over $1.3 million yearly townwide, not counting liability or injuries, he said.

While he said Jeff Standish and the town’s deer management task force had done a “great job” Severini said more needs to be done. “We don’t think it’s fair to ask an all-volunteer army to handle this problem for our town.”

John Rasweiler of Southold’s deer management task force discussed the dangers of tick-borne illnesses, and said he has studied the problem extensively. “The only meaningful solution that’s affordable and workable is to reduce the number of deer,” he said.

Professional management proposed to handle the problem

He cited research by Cornell University and said the most successful approach is utilization of a professional team. “Recreational hunters by themselves cannot solve the deer overpopulation problem,” he said, adding, “Professional management of some sort is essential.”

Hunter participation and training programs must be organized in the community, he said. “Fewer trained hunters are better than just providing additional hunter access, such as lengthening the hunting season,” Rasweiler said; capture and humane euthanasia were recommended.

Ellen Wexler of the NFDMA said back in 2010, she collected signatures from residents concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the burgeoning deer herd. “Our children deserve the right to play in the backyard without fear of disease,” she said.

As she stood outside of the IGA collecting signatures, many shared their stories, some in tears. “One said, ‘My husband died of a tick disease,'” she said. Of the 200 signatures she personally collected — out of more than 1,000 in total — Wexler said only three individuals told her they would not speak with her and wanted her to leave the deer alone.

As far back as 2010, the population of Southold Town “overwhelmingly wanted action. Now it’s 2015 and although you’ve focused on the issue, not much improvement has been seen,” she said.

Southold Town hosted a deer forum in September, 2013, with over 300 in attendance, begging for relief from a deer problem they said was threatening their health and safety.

“Bringing in professional help seems to be the answer to a complicated issue,” Severini said, adding that hiring a professional company to create a managed hunt seemed to be the course of action.
Justice Louisa Evans reminded that the town had embarked upon a deer cull last year that “basically, wasn’t very successful”.
The cull, although embraced by many town residents, received heated opposition from hunters and animal rights activists.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the issues have been identified, and the main problem is access.

“That’s the hump we have to get over,” he said. “The town has spent an awful lot of time and money on this issue. Your organization needs to play a critical role,” he told the NFDMA members. He added that partnering with outside groups was one way the town could successfully handle such issues.

“It’s unfair to ask that of an all-volunteer army,” Severini said, adding that the backing of the town was critical. An authorized and compensated representative of the town, with whom they’d work, was the group’s recommendation.

Last year’s cull, Severini said, was not properly explained to the public, with hunters who felt it infringed on their rights and animal rights activists who did not like the idea of “mass execution”, the two groups, he said, banded together.

What Severini and the group propose now is to recruit local hunters and proceed in a way that’s not as controversial, with no sharp shooters utilizing night vision equipment.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty asked how that would differ from the town’s current deer management program. Rasweiler said currently, the program exists only on town-owned lands that are “pretty decimated by deer.” Moving forward, the goal would be to open up private lands and convince property owners to allow that.

Outreach at community meetings and property owners associations would be critical; some Nassau Point property owners paid for USDA sharp shooters themselves, but other groups need to be educated, he said.

Funding requested

Severini asked that funding be included in the coming year’s budget for a part-time position; he added that perhaps the funding could begin at $15,000 and be augmented in future years.

Doherty said in a challenging budget season, financial help might not be feasible.

Other options, Severini said, are being considered; he’s working with other levels of government on initiatives such as legalizing the sale of venison and tax benefits or charitable donations to hunters, but those solutions will take time.

“Access right now is number one.”

In addition, Wexler said, public education, on the link between ticks and deer, as well as how deer eradication would commence, is critical.

“Education about what’s involved needs to get out,” Councilman Bill Ruland agreed. “People think it’s the wild, wild West.”

Salesmanship and personal interaction is important in explaining the plan to the public, Councilman Bob Ghosio agreed, an ad in a publication would not cover all the bases.

The supervisor said he’d send the idea to the deer management committee for recommendations.

“It is a public health emergency. There’s no question about that,” Ruland said.