On Deer, No Easy Answer

But everyone, it seems, has a lot to say
Each municipality sets its own agenda on deer management. Jane Bimson

When it comes to deer management, East Hampton Town and Village have considered everything — from sterilization and tagging deer to controlled hunts, contraceptives for does, and feeding stations where deer rub against insecticide-soaked posts to access food and thereby kill the ticks they carry. Meanwhile, the villages of Saga­ponack and Southampton have proposed limiting deer fences only to land in agricultural production. 

Not long ago, when Sagaponack asked the Town of Southampton to hold a managed deer hunt on a few town-owned properties to reduce the herd, some sites were approved while others, such as the Poxabogue Golf Course, were not. 

Jay Schneiderman, Southampton Town supervisor, said that was because it seemed “unfair, like shooting fish in a barrel.”

The current practice of letting each municipality set its own agenda on deer management obviously complicates the process. Even within each hamlet, the deer debate goes round and round, often traveling the same rutted ground: To fence or not to fence? Should there be hired bow hunters, small teams of professional rifle hunters to do surgical strikes? Should the culling of deer be prohibited except in the recreational hunting season? Is sedating and sterilizing deer humane or cruel? Residents sometimes ask themselves whether they are pro-Bambi or Nimby-istas, in other words, those who say, “Not in my back yard.” Should a deer die because it eats your hydrangeas?

One of the few things that all sides agree on is more should be done to control the deer herd. But when you go on a listening tour and invite members of the various factions involved — town officials, animal-rights advocates, hired hunters, local homeowners, and medical professionals — to explain why more isn’t being done, the reasons become clear. Charges fly. Positions harden. Frustrations bubble up. There are hot disagreements about even the most basic facts. And the debate perennially snaps into something like this.

A Homeowner/Animal Activist: 

Bill Crain, a City University of New York psychology professor, is president of the 15-year-old East Hampton Group for Wildlife and a part-time resident of Montauk who runs an upstate New York animal sanctuary where he and his wife, Ellen, a retired physician and fellow vegan, live with about 100 animals.

Mr. Crain has been arrested 11 times in different advocacy demonstrations. “Twice for trying to protect trees in Teaneck (New Jersey, where he used to live), and nine times for trying to stop bear hunting,” Mr. Crain said in an interview Saturday. He has protested shark hunts in Montauk, suggested if speeding laws here were strictly enforced, or motorists drove more slowly, collisions with deer, which he said have averaged 473 a year in the past two years in East Hampton Town and Village, would be reduced. He’s also staged several hunger strikes to stop deer hunting in East Hampton.

“We had the hunger strikes the first week of January for several years, usually for three days or so, and a couple of us, mostly my wife and I, sat out in front of Town Hall in the cold weather,” Mr. Crain said. “Our group has also had rallies. We’ve sued the town. In January, we’re trying to get them to revoke this weekend hunting idea that’s been approved. There’s no possible relief for the deer. It’s heartbreaking. We’d like to get a couple sanctuaries where deer can go and at least have some safety, some peace.”

According to Mr. Crain, “the town board has taken the position that the best way to handle any problems with the deer is to kill them. And we feel each deer’s life is precious. Each deer has feelings and a family and wants to live just as much as we do.”

“In our view, the town takes an immoral position. The town has been irresponsible. They act as if the deer, as if lives other than human lives, don’t matter at all.”

Mr. Crain said making the case that the town’s position is immoral has always been tough. “This current town board is perhaps the worst we’ve experienced. They have the most pro-hunting bias of any we’ve experienced. East Hampton Town has a wildlife advisory board and we have a seat, but we have difficulty even keeping a person in there. It’s like sending someone into the lion’s den. We’ll keep trying to make our case.” Sighing slightly, he added, “I guess a lot of people have jobs where they feel like they’re fighting uphill.”

A Hired Gun:

“When it comes to these towns’ deer management efforts, it’s hard to remove stupidity from the table,” said Dr. Anthony DeNicola, who has a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and a Ph.D. from Purdue University in wildlife ecology. A deer management professional, he is the founder of White Buffalo Inc., a Connecticut-based firm that has managed professional hunts and deer sterilization efforts in East Hampton Village, North Haven, and elsewhere across the country. 

“The debate is like ‘Groundhog Day.’ And I’ve been living inside the circle for 25 years,” Mr. DeNicola said. Speaking in a telephone interview last weekend from Quebec, he said, “The biggest problem is pretty fundamental, and it probably applies to many issues: You either have strong community leadership or you don’t. I don’t know of any politician in this country whose re-election has been impacted by deciding to manage deer. But they’re politicians. And many of them are pretty soft. The other factor is there’s no magic solution. It’s been a myth for 50 years that [recreational] hunters control the deer population. The only real way to do effective, significant deer reduction is with professional hunts by experts. It’s been proven. But these places, they want me to come in and say, ‘Here’s this magic other thing. We’re going to do this, and your problem will be solved!’ Everyone wants to have this magic vaccine that any old lady can get off a shelf, get a dart gun and dart something in the backyard, and all the deer will stop producing babies. And that’s just not happening.” 

Mr. DeNicola had some advice: “So you have to pick and choose from a spectrum of desirable to less-desirable options, and none of them are perfect. We have made abysmally small progress in vaccine technology. Contracept the deer? It doesn’t last long enough. I’m doing these surgically invasive doe sterilization projects to research and understand how reproduction inhibition would impact the deer population. But it’s an immense undertaking to capture a very significant part of the deer population.”

Asked whether such a huge undertaking would lead everyone back to pondering again some significant hunting effort to cull the herd, Mr. DeNicola said, “Right. And there’s no place I’ve ever been, which is many places across the country and across the world, that the problem can’t be solved. When I’m in these public meetings, I can whittle all of it down and get you to what it costs, what gets accomplished, give you all the facts and the data. But then I have numerous communities, like those on the East End, that then say, ‘We don’t have the money.’ So you know what I say? I say, ‘Okay. No problem. But tell your public, What we are doing, it’s a stopgap.’ Or I just tell them, ‘Fine.’ And I walk away.” 

“After 28 years of this, I’m happy to come help you if you’re serious. But if you want to live with your deer and bitch about it every year, I don’t care. I go home to my place in Connecticut, and I don’t have a deer problem and it really doesn’t affect me much at all.”

The Medical Professional:

“Right now I take care of 489 patients that have the alpha gal meat allergy from the lone star tick. At this time of year, when people are having exposure to the tick larvae in the late fall, it’s not uncommon for me to see an additional three to six new cases a week,” said Dr. Erin McGintee, a board-certified allergist and immunologist who works at ENT and Allergy Associates in Southampton, sits on the physicians’ advisory board for the Tick-Borne Disease Resource Center at Stony Brook University Hospital, and is an appointed member of the Suffolk County Board of Health. “I don’t know the answer to deer control. But I firmly believe something has to be done,” Dr. McGintee said, adding that the need was obvious and “it’s easy to connect the dots.”

“Clearly, if we didn’t have as big of a deer problem, we wouldn’t have as big of a tick problem, and I think the same argument extends to all of the tick-related illnesses,” Dr. McGintee said. “I think we all can agree the exploding deer population makes it harder to avoid. It’s very hard to prevent people from getting bitten, and it’s usually the bite you don’t see that makes you sick because it goes untreated. This is a sneaky disease. Also, the more bites you get, the worse it gets. And yet, it’s just such a challenge to make any progress on this because for every person that does understand how dire it is, there’s somebody else saying, ‘God forbid you want to sterilize a deer or try to put insect repellent on them.’ ”

And what was Dr. McGintee’s response? “Just because we’re interested in reducing the deer population, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re anti-animal. I mean, I love those deer. But I also feel sad for them. They’re competing against themselves. There’s just too many. They don’t have quality of life. You can look at them and see they’re stunted, they’re not growing normally. Our community can’t support it. The ecosystem and forests can’t support it. The lone star tick is becoming a bigger problem than the regular tick in our area. It’s far more prevalent at this moment. Unless we do something, all of this is just going to be a bigger and bigger issue. And it’s important to get that word out there. Something has to be done.” 

The Town Official: 

Jay Schneiderman was the supervisor of East Hampton for four years and became Southampton Town supervisor in 2016. In an interview this week from the campaign trail, where he’s running as the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County comptroller, Mr. Schneiderman said, “The deer issue is always going to be a big question for the local community. But balancing the needs, it’s not always going to be easy. And I consider myself fairly moderate on the issue.”

“I’m not anti-hunter, and I’m aware of all the various other issues — the damage to crops and forests and landscaping, cars striking deer on the highways,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I recognize that a lot of people have contracted Lyme disease and all these other tick-borne illnesses. And that is serious. On the other hand, you have people that feel compassion for these creatures. And I do too. They are beautiful. No one wants to see an animal suffer. So what do you do?”

Mr. Schneiderman tells a story about how his girlfriend spotted a man standing on their street the other day looking off at something in the distance. One hour passed, two hours passed, and the stranger was still there.

“She finally went outside and said, ‘Sir, can I help you with something?’ and he told her, ‘I’m waiting for a deer that I shot with an arrow to die.’ ” Mr. Schneiderman said. “That’s too long for me for an animal to suffer. So if bow hunting is going to be the deer management program of choice somewhere, I think it’s fair to ask questions like whether it’s a shooting-fish-in-the-barrel kind of thing. And is it fair? Is it ethical? But people can’t even agree on the need to kill the deer. So you do see it all.” 

According to Mr. Schneiderman, “Some of these people say they don’t want to see a deer die — and then they go home and eat a hamburger. So there’s a little inconsistency to me there. And every once in a while, somebody will mention introducing a deer predator. And that’s another conversation that never goes anywhere, either, because someone else usually points out, ‘Uh. We can’t introduce bobcats without also fearing for our children.’ ”

And the deer debate resumes. . . .

Anthony DeNicola president and founder of White Buffalo, a Connecticut company that handles deer management hunts, says he has never encountered a community where herd control isn’t doable.Photo Courtesy of White Buffalo