A Springs Fire Department ambulance rushing a patient to Southampton hit a deer on Sunday. Other than the animal, presumably, no one was reported injured, but it added a punctuation mark to a week in which six deer were listed as struck by vehicles in East Hampton Town, with two incidents for which police reports were filed. In East Hampton Village, two deer-versus-car accidents were logged, with one resulting in a report.
To those few readers who are lucky enough not to have encountered a deer while on the road, we can say that words fail to come close to the feeling of terror and helplessness as flesh strikes metal. For young passengers in particular, this can be a horrifying and nightmare-inducing experience. For the deer, the accidents are apt to be fatal, though their death is not necessarily or mercifully quick; police officers, and sometimes steel-nerved citizens, have to administer the final coup de grace. It is a brutal and painful business all around.
Another issue has come to the fore as opposition rises against a planned professional sharpshooter kill on the South Fork. Traditional hunting cannot keep up with the need for herd control, nor can nonprofessionals be trusted in populated areas, such as the villages. Opponents of the cull, and the lawyers hired to fight it, have pointed to two surveys commissioned by the Town of East Hampton to gauge the deer population.
One study, in 2006, estimated that there were more than 3,200 deer in the Town of East Hampton. This effort depended on roadside sightings and on mathematical estimates to come up with a total. In 2013, an aerial survey found 877 deer within town limits, but this study did not include estimates of a total number. Because the methodologies used in each were entirely different, no conclusion about population trends can be drawn. Claims of a decline in deer numbers cannot be made based on these disparate counts; those who try are wrong.
Reports of deer-vehicle collisions rose from 25 in 2000 to 108 in 2011, according to the town, but these numbers are not necessarily proof of an increase in the population. It may well be that town and village officials should continue sampling, repeating either or both these studies as soon as possible, and perhaps annually, to see if a trend emerges.
In the absence of conclusive data, we must look to experienced wildlife managers, such as those at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, for guidance. We also must consider the toll that these accidents take on deer, vehicles, and the emotions of those involved.