It may be hard for modern suburbanites to believe, but deer became so scarce in the early 1900s due to intense hunting that the species would have been considered endangered. That, of course, is no longer true. A mix of hunting restrictions, predator eradication, and suburbanization—creating deer-friendly open spaces—has produced a dramatic comeback. The white-tailed deer is now the most widely-distributed large mammal in North America. What has been a boon for deer populations, however, has proven sometimes to be a bane to human settlements and, in some cases, to the environment. In fact, deer are considered a bigger threat to the health of eastern US forests than climate change because of the impacts of their feeding habits on forest regeneration and, consequently, other species—particularly songbirds.
While many therefore vilify deer, which the legendary naturalist John Muir called “invincibly graceful” and the US Forest Service describes as a “magnificent animal” of “immeasurable” importance, it is important to remember that humans have largely engineered this problem. The towns and villages of eastern Long Island, New York, are no exception, where a mix of development and open space has fueled deer population growth by providing ample food and refuge. As usual, when deer and humans come into conflict, the deer come out on the losing end. In response to a growing number of deer, the Long Island Farm Bureau and the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program proposed a project last summer to use federal sharpshooters to kill 2,000 to 3,000 deer this winter throughout the five eastern towns on Long Island.
AWI sent a letter in January to USDA officials, asserting that Wildlife Services was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act by proposing to cull thousands more deer than contemplated by existing environmental planning documents, and by failing to update these documents to include consideration of over a decade of research on successful, non-lethal management methods. USDA responded by agreeing to reduce the scope of the project to no more than 1,000 deer, and to update its environmental planning documents, but refused to halt the killing this winter.
AWI then worked with local deer advocates to convince the towns not to support the Farm Bureau/Wildlife Services project, with all but the town of Southold deciding not to contribute funds to the project. In an attempt to stop any killing of deer this winter, AWI joined a lawsuit alleging that Southold had hastily approved its financial support for the project without adequately complying with state environmental law; unfortunately, the judge in the case denied our request for a temporary injunction. AWI brought a second lawsuit, filed against the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, alleging that the department was issuing permits for the cull in an arbitrary and unscientific manner. This time, the deer won a reprieve when the judge issued a temporary injunction in early March that halted the issuance of any new permits for the cull. AWI is awaiting a decision on its request for a preliminary injunction.
AWI continues to work to halt any cull this year and advocate for greater transparency and consideration of non-lethal management methods, given that the Long Island Farm Bureau and Wildlife Services apparently still seek to cull as many as 9,000 deer on eastern Long Island over the next few years.