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‘Professional harvesting’ needed to reduce North Fork deer population to a level that won’t pose threat to human health: report

Meaningful reduction of the deer herd on the North Fork is the only realistic way to control the serious tick-borne diseases infecting local residents, according to a report prepared by Southold Town’s tick working group. And the only way to achieve the reduction needed is to incorporate professional deer harvesting into any deer population management program, because recreational hunting cannot alone reduce the herd to a level that will not pose a threat to human health, the report concludes.

Members of the group, chaired by John Rasweiler, delivered the report to the Southold Town Board at today’s work session. He was accompanied by three other members of the committee. See full report below.

Non-lethal deer management methods, such as four-posters and sterilization, are ineffective or impractical, the group concluded. Spraying chemicals to reduce the tick population is likewise ineffective.

The proliferation of deer is responsible for the proliferation of black-legged and lone star ticks, which together spread serious diseases that can be fatal, including babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, tularemia and Lyme disease.

The need to cull the herd is clear, said Rasweiler, who presented the report on behalf of the group.

“In the absence of meaningful deer control, we will continue to face unacceptable risks of contracting seriously debilitating and sometimes fatal infections with tick-borne diseases, frequent deer-vehicular collisions, further deterioration of our natural environment with an attendant loss of biodiversity, and continued economic losses by our important agricultural sector,” the report states.

A “carefully conducted, 13-year study” in Groton, Connecticut demonstrated that reduction of an excessive deer population to about 13 animals per square mile resulted in a 76-percent reduction in tick abundance and an 80-percent reduction in resident-reported cases of Lyme disease in the community, compared to before a hunt was initiated.

Progress controlling the deer herd has been stalled for three reasons, the report says:

1. New York State has been very slow to recognize that our deer-related problems are extremely serious and liberalize accordingly the regulations governing the recreational harvesting of deer;

2. recreational hunting alone is now probably incapable of solving deer over-population problems of our magnitude; and

3. recreational hunting must be used in conjunction with professional deer harvesting and/or carefully trained recreational hunters working under nuisance permits to reduce such populations.

The use of professional sharpshooters in a pilot program conducted in 2014 sparked controversy and litigation, with animal rights activists furious over the use of sharpshooters. It resulted in the harvesting of only 132 deer on the North Fork, and was not considered successful.

Regulatory change won’t take place without legislative change, because “the DEC is a creature of state law,” Supervisor Scott Russell said of the state environmental conservation agency. “State legislators are not willing to do anything but baby steps. They’re afraid they’re going to have PETA at their door,” he said, referring to the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The tick working group’s conclusions are in keeping with those of the North Fork Deer Management Alliance, a private citizens group which also advocates hunting as the most effective and humane way of dealing with the local deer crisis.

The tick working group and the alliance both say public education is crucial, because people need to really understand the extent of the threat posed by deer and the tick-borne diseases they help spread. The public also needs to understand the facts about managing the deer population. The North Fork Deer Management Alliance has prepared a brochure that it is looking to raise money to print and mail to every household. The tick working group suggested to the town board that it mail a brochure that’s already been published by the county.

The town board did not further discuss the group’s recommendations at today’s meeting.

Southold Town Tick Working Group Report

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.