Editorial: Senate Bill 4804 would help control local deer herd

Estimates vary of the numbers of white-tailed deer in Riverhead and Southold towns, but a good guess from people who study the issue is approximately 7,000. Perhaps 3,000 of those are in Southold Town.

A healthy deer population is about 8 to 10 deer per square mile, experts have said. Southold Town has approximately 60 square miles of land. So a deer population that doesn’t destroy the understory in our woods, and does not pose a serious health hazard from tick-borne diseases, would be something like 500 to 600 in all of Southold.

Riverhead Town has about 200 square miles of land. A healthy deer population in that town should not exceed 2,000. As you can see, the estimated 7,000 deer on the North Fork are far above the carrying capacity of the land. Hence farms and vineyards are now surrounded by 8-foot fences, which push the deer into residential areas. 

With our woods stripped of the understory by voracious herds, the damage this overabundance of deer has caused is right before our eyes. Add in health risks and it can be said that the deer population is a menace to our well-being. Bambi is not our friend; he is making people sick.

Bill S4804, sponsored by New York State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), which would direct the state Department of Environmental Conservation to establish a deer management program in Southold, is a much-needed first step to correct this crisis.

The bill is in Albany, stalled along with other measures like the state budget, but we hope progress can be made. If passed, the bill would revolutionize the culling of deer in our town and would be a model to other East End towns. The serious problems caused by a hugely oversized deer herd cannot continue. Strong measures have to be taken.

In a statement, Mr. Palumbo said: “This legislation has broad community support and the backing of the region’s farmers. A successful deer management program will help prevent the loss and destruction of crops for our small and family-owned farms, saving money and resources, and protecting this vital industry. 

“It will also improve the safety of our roadways, by cutting down on vehicle accidents, and enhance the health and safety of residents by helping to reduce the spread of tick-borne illness.”

If Mr. Palumbo’s bill is enacted into law, new regulations would be under the DEC’s supervision. For the first time, crossbows — which are more accurate and easier to use for older and younger hunters — would be legal to use; hunters could receive some form of compensation for culling the herd; 12- and 13-year-olds under adult supervision would be allowed to hunt. There are additional changes as well.

There is a new aspect to our deer numbers that hunters and others have seen in the past year. A virus called epizootic hemorrhagic disease has killed thousands of white-tailed deer statewide. No firm numbers are available, but experts such as Craig Jobes, a Southold Town environmental analyst, say hundreds in the town have likely died from this disease. Hunters, he said, see dead deer frequently.

“The dead seem to be focused around freshwater bodies such as Laurel Lake” in Mattituck, Mr. Jobes said. He said eventually the deer will develop resistance to the virus, so their numbers will go back up again.

Dan Goodwin, Southold’s highway superintendent, said his crews have seen fewer roadkill deer in recent months, which is also likely because of the virus.

“One farmer we talked to said he saw far less crop damage this year than in previous years,” Mr. Jobes said. “But that will plateau and the population will build back up again.”