Column: High deer numbers threaten public health

Not that long ago, many longtime residents and farmers rarely saw deer on their properties. Farmers could maintain their crops without the fear that herds of deer would devour their plants and destroy acres of produce and fruit trees.

Today, as it has been for several years, this is no longer the case. Farmers now routinely put up expensive eight-foot-high fencing to protect their crops. Even some North Fork homeowners have erected high fences to keep deer — and the ticks they carry — out of their yards.

Any North Fork farmer would say without this fencing he or she would not have crops to sell. If Southold Town inexplicably passed a law banning fences higher than, say, three feet, traditional farming here would come to an end. You can imagine the domino effect of that on tourism and, perhaps, even real estate prices.

Citing tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease — just one of the horrors ticks inflict on people — some officials have characterized the overpopulation of deer on eastern Long Island as a public health menace. The abundance of deer has also all but destroyed healthy undergrowth in our woods, and it is no exaggeration to say deer-related accidents just in the Town of Southold have caused perhaps $6 million or more in damage since 2010, according to one local group.

Southold Town has targeted this problem directly with expanded hunting on town-owned properties, which also includes issuing nuisance permits for hunting after the regular season. Homeowners on Nassau Point — as well as homeowners on Ram’s Island on Shelter Island — have effectively used hunters to reduce the deer population.

Hamilton Archers, the group that has reduced the deer population on Nassau Point, has been an effective tool and will likely grow as an organization in the coming years. Another group doing this kind of work is White Buffalo Inc., which has done field work in suburban areas like what the North Fork has evolved into. The group’s website says its members are “dedicated to the conservation of native species and ecosystems.” Certainly these are important goals.

But these groups and the recreational hunting community are not enough to reduce an estimated 3,000 deer in Southold Town — and probably twice that number in Riverhead, according to experts — to a number that the land can sustain. Seeing deer dead on the road — seeing a newborn fawn lying dead on the front yard of a neighbor’s house last weekend — should no longer be the norm here. There are simply too many deer in too small a space.

John Rasweiler, a physiologist who sits on the town’s deer management committee, said: “We are at significant risk of tick-borne diseases and illnesses. It’s been going on for quite some time and it is getting worse with the passage of time.”

He added, “The true experts out there, they uniformly agree that recreational hunting is incapable of solving a problem of this magnitude. The deer density is so high that recreational hunting won’t solve it.”

In March 2016, the Southold Tick Working Group issued a dramatic call to arms about tick-borne diseases. “Deer play a central role in the epidemiology of tick-borne diseases, because they provide a bountiful source of blood for ticks’ adult reproductive stage,” its report says. “Before the explosion of the deer population, black legged/deer and lone star ticks, as well the diseases they transmit, simply were not serious problems on most of eastern Long Island.

“Furthermore, several scientific reports have documented that a significant reduction or elimination of deer in study areas greatly reduced or eliminated Lyme disease in the human residents.”

The report lists the diseases ticks carry and points out that a white-tailed deer — in contrast to, say, a mouse — can carry large numbers of adult female ticks, which engorge themselves and then drop off to lay thousands of eggs. As the report makes clear, deer are “the heart of our current epidemic of tick-borne diseases.”

The report lists the life-changing health impacts of tick-borne diseases. Don’t read it while your children or grandchildren are playing in the backyard — the same backyard where the deer were eating your garden the night before.

Potential solutions like de-ticking stations, where deer would be treated as they walk by, are expensive and unworkable. In Riverhead and Southold towns, the number of such stations would be absurdly high. Nor would such stations reduce the continued degradation of woodlands, damage to crops and ornamentals or deer-car accidents.

Perhaps some can accept the serious damage to the woods that the high numbers of deer cause. Perhaps we can learn to live with fenced-in farms that direct the deer into your backyard. But the health impacts of tick-borne diseases must be aggressively addressed. They threaten residents and visitors alike.

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].