Editorial: Size of the deer herd on North Fork is at crisis level

By some estimates, the white-tailed deer herd in Southold alone is between 5,000 and 7,000. Riverhead’s herd is probably in the same range. Recreational hunters, and those hunting with nuisance permits, cull hundreds each year, but their efforts are not enough to bring the numbers down to manageable levels.

This number is far too large for the square miles of open space on the North Fork, and beyond the destruction of the understory in woodlands across the region, the herd poses an enormous health risk for all of us, with tick-borne diseases so common that almost everyone who lives here knows someone who has been infected, some critically.

Here are some shocking numbers: Up through last weekend, 483 deer killed by cars were disposed of in the Southold Town landfill. In Riverhead, the yearly average is approximately 250 carcasses dumped in that town’s landfill.

And that’s only the deer who died on roads and could be picked up by highway crews. Hundreds more that are hit are not found and crawl off and die in the woods. Setting aside the cruelty of this, consider the millions of dollars in insurance costs to repair damaged cars. The only winners in this catastrophe are the car repair businesses.

The issue of an oversized deer herd and its impact was strongly spelled out at Saturday’s meeting of the Southold Peconic Civic Association. The meeting was timely and important. After hearing two speakers, Southold Town Board member Greg Doroski and Arnold Blair, a member of the Deer Management Task Force, anyone in attendance would have come away shocked at the seriousness of this issue.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Southold contains 53.7 square miles of land; Riverhead contains 67.4 square miles of land. Obviously, development takes up a lot of space, and many farmers and vineyard owners now fence their properties to keep destructive herds away, forcing them into more populated areas. 

Biologists say a healthy herd is approximately 10 to 15 deer per square mile. By that estimate, there are thousands more deer on the North Fork than the environment and open space can handle.

Legislation will be reintroduced in the State Legislature next month that will allow for crossbows in hunting, will put a bounty on deer culled, along with other measures. Our local legislators in both the Assembly and Senate support these measures.

If passed, they are a start. But very strong measures must be taken to reduce a herd that poses an enormous health and safety risk to everyone and has already destroyed the understory of our woodlands. To reduce tick-borne diseases, this huge herd of deer must be culled back to a small number.