As the old saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
And so it went for opponents of a federal operation to cull deer across the East End — to a degree.
A state Supreme Court judge ruled yesterday that the Department of Environmental Conservation can no longer issue any deer damage permits in relation to the program, at least until March 28, limiting the number of deer that will be killed.
However, permits and deer tags that have been issued can be filled under the existing permits, the judge ruled.
Newsday reported Friday that a state Supreme Court judge in Albany County, Joseph Teresi, found the opponents “are likely to succeed on the merits of these claims” that proper environmental reviews weren’t undertaken by the DEC prior to the cull.
“We are encouraged by [the ruling],” said Jeff Baker, the Albany-based lawyer who argued on behalf of those who have been opposing the cull. “It’s certainly a very good step. And at least it puts some limit on what they are doing.”
According to Mr. Baker, though, exactly how many permits remain unused is unknown. DEC officials said in late February that permits for 12 different properties — in Southold, Riverhead, and Southampton — had been issued, with more still pending. Requests for updated totals have not been returned, and a DEC spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment Friday morning.
U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters started the cull last Monday, officials said.
According to Mr. Baker, DEC said in court that about 440 deer tags had been issued through the cull organized by the Long Island Farm Bureau. He personally estimated that number to be higher.
“It looked like 985 tags had been issued to the USDA, so there seems to be discrepancy,” he said. “But again, we are not getting clear data. The numbers don’t add up.
“There has never been a clear presentation of essentially the scope of the overall program,” he said. “That’s really why the lawsuit was brought against the DEC.”
Critics of the cull have spoken out over a lack of transparency in recent weeks. After a judge threw out a court case against Southold Town attempting to stop the town’s efforts to support the plan, officials with the USDA have referred requests for comment about the cull to the farm bureau, while the farm bureau’s executive director, Joe Gergela, has not returned repeated requests for comment.
The farm bureau had originally pitched the plan to all East End municipalities, asking each town or village interested in participating to pitch in funds to help match the $250,000 the organization planned to contribute, which it received as part of a state grant to thin the herd. In recent weeks however, both East Hampton Town and Village dropped out after a judge issued a temporary restraining order, stopping the towns from moving forward.
An original goal of thinning the herd by 2,400 to 3,000 dropped to the 1,000 range since Southold was the only municipality to contribute funds to the program.
After the Southold Town Board voted on Feb. 11 to contribute $25,000 to the LIFB plan, Supervisor Scott Russell said board members were acting in the best interest of the town, stating that the overpopulation of deer on the North Fork is having an adverse affect on resident’s health, finance and overall safety.
Furthermore, environmental degradation — damage to the area’s understory — has been recognized by the USDA itself.
A trip report from botanist Thomas Rawinski to Southold in September of 2013 noted that “the forests have been severely damaged by deer, to the point where trees can no longer replace themselves. There are simply too many deer devouring the tree seedlings and saplings.”
But Mike Tessitore, founder of the group Hunters for Deer — which filed the lawsuit along with the Wildlife Preservation Society of Eastern Long Island and the Animal Welfare Institute — said on Friday morning that yesterday’s ruling confirmed what they have been saying all along.
“This just goes to show that the DEC can’t continue to run business the way they are,” he said. “There needs to be checks and balances, and accountability … I think the DEC is going to start to realize that they are going to have to make necessary changes.”