FINS deer management plan sparks ire

Photo by Mark MacNish

FINS deer management plan sparks ire

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
2/4/2016


FIRE ISLAND—Over the past several years, the National Park Service has been researching a management plan for the overabundance of white-tailed deer that they say pose a threat to the ecosystem on the barrier island. The plan—a nearly 500-page document—that was recently released has been met with fierce opposition from many of the year-round and part-time residents of the island along with a number of non-residents. Tomorrow, Feb. 5, they will take their complaints, along with a petition that has well over 3,500 signatures, directly to the Fire Island National Seashore office in Patchogue where a morning rally is planned.

According to protestors, the plan includes a hunt to kill in the wilderness section of the island, as well as a trap and euthanasia system for deer that roam the populated 17 communities there. They say there is a much more humane way to control the deer.

“Immunocontraception works very well,” said Marija Beqaj, a year-round resident of Ocean Beach. Beqaj explained that she’d been involved with a cooperative experimental study between FINS and volunteers from the island’s communities that began back in 1995. At that time, she said the contraceptive PZP (procine zona pellucida) had been used with great success in curbing Fire Island’s deer population. However, after 2009, that approach was abandoned by FINS. Beqaj said there are currently many people that are willing to volunteer to repeat that method of deer control.

“We don’t want our deer killed,” she remarked, noting that the wildlife has long commingled well with humans over the years.

However, Chris Soller, FINS superintendent since 2010, refutes claims of any significant success of PZP inoculations, saying that the experiment actually produced mixed results. “It was effective in areas where deer are fed regularly, but it was not as effective in free-roaming areas.” He added that since deer are always on the move, it would be difficult to determine which of the females had already been injected with PZP. “We’d have to inoculate all females,” he added.

Aside from that, there’s another technicality: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not as yet approved PZP for deer. It can only be used with a special permit as it has in the past. However, it is approved for use on wild feral horses and burros in the United States and it has been approved internationally, where it has successfully controlled overpopulation of elephants. 

PZP is not a hormone, but rather a protein that when injected produces antibodies in the immune system that bind to the membranes surrounding the eggs, blocking sperm so fertilization does not take place. One dose, which is delivered by dart, can be effective for up to two years after which boosters are recommended.

“PZP is like giving the deer a birth control pill,” said Wendy Chamberlain, president of the Wildlife Preservation Coalition of Eastern Long Island. “It’s an elegant, incredibly safe means of controlling the population that is internationally known to be nonlethal, humane and effective.

 “[FINS] just wants a one-time solution. No one on Fire Island is complaining about the deer,” she added.

Soller said not everyone who spends time on Fire Island is as fond of deer. He noted that some complain about them eating their plants and rummaging through the garbage for food. He said some people are apprehensive around them. “They can be aggressive; it depends on the time of year, if they are in heat or [protecting] a baby. They are wild creatures and not predictable.” 

Soller said more importantly, the increasing deer population has had a devastating effect on the Sunken Forest in the wilderness section, where they feed off of the vegetation and have posed a great threat to the viability of the natural landscape and other animals there.

“We’re trying to manage a balanced ecosystem,” said Soller. “We can’t allow one species to dominate over another.” It is estimated that the deer population is currently around 100 per square mile, which is approximately 75 more than considered acceptable.

However, Beqaj said that culling the herd in the way the plan suggests might not produce the desired result. “There will be more fawns after a hunt,” she noted, referring to a pattern that is known as compensatory reproduction or reproductive rebound. In that proven theory, the remaining females become healthier due to more access to food and can reproduce easily, sometimes delivering twins and triplets, thus not only replacing those killed, but increasing the overall size of the herd.

 “They’ll have to kill [the deer] every year,” she said. “Fire Island will be open to hunting and lethal management forever and it will change this idyllic place. It’s crazy.”

NYS Senator Phil Boyle said he is also vehemently opposed to the FINS plan of shooting the deer.

“It’s the wrong way to go,” said Boyle. “Many people are willing to give the contraceptive to the deer,” a method he said was much more humane. He added that he hopes FINS will reevaluate the plan and consider immunocontraception instead.

Soller said that the Alternative D plan, as it now stands, which also includes adding fencing around vegetation to keep away the deer, is the best way to go. “It gives us the greatest tools to manage the herd.”

The plan was presented on Jan. 8, which was followed by a customary one-month moratorium on a decision. Therefore, a decision from the park’s service regional administrator could come as early as Feb. 8. “We hope we have a decision by the end of the month,” Soller said.

If the plan is approved, Soller said the hunt in the wilderness would be done in accordance with regulations provided by the DEC and could take place during this year’s hunting season, which in NYS is typically November, December and January.

However, he said the suggested plan for capture and euthanasia of deer in the communities is “not a priority. It’s a last resort. We do not plan to be in the community without the support of the community and NYS authorization,” he said. “But we have to manage the wildlife. 

“There’s no simple answer to this complex issue. And people are very emotional about it. It’s not easy.”

Chamberlain noted that had the parks department kept up with the PZP inoculations, the deer population wouldn’t be a problem now. “They are supposed to be protecting our wildlife,” she said. “This [plan] would be setting wildlife management back at least 20 years.”