Lawsuit brings unintended consequence to deer cull

White-tailed deer grazing in Southold Tuesday. Supervisor Scott Russell has called reducing the local deer population the town's number one priority.  (Credit: Katharine Schreoder)
White-tailed deer grazing in Southold Tuesday. Supervisor Scott Russell has called reducing the local deer population the town’s number one priority. (Credit: Katharine Schreoder)

Last year, a total of 30 deer that had wandered onto Half Hollow Nurseries in Laurel were shot and killed. The shootings were all legal, allowed by off-season nuisance permits issued by the state.

This year, not a single deer has been killed there during the off-season, said general manager Karl Novak. 

The same goes for farmers across New York State. None was able to kill deer — at least not legally.

When a state Supreme Court judge issued a restraining order in March as part of a lawsuit over a controversial deer cull program organized through the Long Island Farm Bureau, the goal was to prevent the state Department of Environmental Conservation from continuing to issue permits to federally trained sharpshooters.

But farmers and elected officials say an unintended consequence of the injunction has prevented the government from handing out nuisance permits to farmers.

The result, some say, could be an “explosion” in what many already consider an out-of-control deer population, as farmers are unable to legally kill deer on their property before they breed.

“This suit better get settled quick, because you’re going to see deer like you’ve never seen before,” said Jamesport farmer and Riverhead Town Councilman George Gabrielsen.

Nuisance permits allow farmers to hunt on their own land outside the normal hunting season using tags. A majority of the tags are for does, which are specifically targeted as a way of curtailing the deer population.

“It’s not meant to be used as a prize hunting permit; it’s to control the deer on the farm,” Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joseph Gergela said of the nuisance permit program.

The DEC issued 25 deer damage permits across Southold Town in 2013, spokesperson Bill Fonda told The Suffolk Times in February. The number of deer that can be killed under each permit varies from five to roughly 100, according to DEC documentation.

Despite numerous calls, a spokesperson for the DEC did not comment on the current nuisance permit issues.

Mr. Novak said farmers who would normally be removing deer from their properties are now left hoping the restraining order can be lifted.

“Our strategy right now is wait and see, because there really is no alternative for us,” he said.

While the permits alone aren’t enough to manage the North Fork’s deer population, Mr. Novak said they were a “good tool in our arsenal to at least affect the deer population.”

“That’s just another tool taken out of our hands,” he said.

The indefinite restraining order was issued by a state Supreme Court judge after opponents of the deer cull filed a lawsuit this past winter alleging the DEC and Southold Town did not properly look into the environmental impact of the cull. The court order forbids the DEC from issuing any deer damage permits, which were being used by federal sharpshooters. But that description includes the nuisance permits used by many North Fork farmers.

A previous lawsuit seeking to stop the cull was thrown out of court.