By Tessa Raebeck
Some three hundred people gathered in East Hampton Saturday in opposition to the village’s plan to bring federal sharpshooters in to cull the deer herd. Hunters and wildlife activists joined together at the “No Cull” rally, organized by the East Hampton Group for Wildlife and supported by hunting organizations like Hunters for Deer and Long Island Archers.
Chanting “What do we want? Stop the cull? When do we want it? Now!” demonstrators, some who had driven hours to reach the village, marched from the Hook Mill in East Hampton to Herrick Park.
East Hampton Village and Southold Town have agreed to a Long Island Farm Bureau (LIFB) program that would bring USDA sharpshooters to the East End to cull the deer herd, which many local residents and farmers say is overpopulated and destructive. LIFB executive director Joe Gergela estimates 1,500 to 2,000 deer would be killed during the 40-day cull.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not yet issued a permit for the cull (see sidebar).
Proponents of the plan say the deer population, with no natural predators, has outgrown the available food supply and natural environment on the East End. Deer, they say, create hazardous conditions on roads, carry tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and negatively impact the local agriculture industry.
East Hampton Town agreed to the program in December under the last administration, but new town supervisor Larry Cantwell said last week he is unsure whether the town will still take part.
The program is funded by a $200,000 state grant LIFB received for deer management and would be one of the largest removals of deer ever undertaken by the government.
The hundreds who gathered Saturday are calling on the LIFB to stop the cull and for all municipalities to withdraw their support. East Hampton Village has committed $15,000 to the farm bureau and Southold Town has pledged $25,000. Those funds support sharpshooters coming into public lands, but the cull can continue on private land without official support from local governments.
In December, The Group for Wildlife, along with 13 individual plaintiffs and the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, filed suit against East Hampton town, village and the town trustees.
“We’re going to sue each and every town or village that even thinks about entering into this plan,” Wendy Chamberlain, a Bridgehampton resident who helped organize the rally, told the crowd Saturday.
“It gets better,” she added, “We’re also going to sue the heinous USDA!”
Despite the uncommon collaboration of hunters and animal rights advocates, the rally was peaceful aside from one disruption, when concert promoter Ron Delsener shouted at East Hampton school board member Patricia Hope.
Hope was passing out flyers supporting immuno-contraception as a more peaceful way to cull the herd than the “wholesale slaughter of does and fawns” when Delsener, who has a house in East Hampton and is funding the anti-cull lawsuit, yelled, “This lady wants to kill the deer!”
“I don’t want to kill the deer,” Hope replied, moving away from Delsener.
Group for Wildlife founder and Montauk resident Bill Crain encouraged the crowd to write letters and call their government officials to “let them know we will not stand for this.”
“They don’t have a chance of re-election if they are going to pursue this barbaric, murderous slaughter,” Crain said.
Many protestors dressed in hunting gear and held signs with slogans like, “Cull the board not the herd,” “Slaughter, savagery, stupidity,” and “Deer epidemic NOT proven.”
One sign said, “Are the swans next?” referring to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) new proposal to kill or capture all mute swans by 2025. Another had a photo of fawns and the words, “Are you going to kill my mommy?”
“They don’t deserve to die,” Sag Harbor’s Anne Plucis shouted to passing drivers, “They’re not the reason for this.”
Plucis said mice and rats are to blame for the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses, not deer.
Mike Tessitore, a former Sag Harbor Village policeman who is a member of Hunters for Deer, called the proposed plan “a slap in the face to the community, as well as the hunters on Long Island and in New York State.”
“If hunters were given the same opportunity as USDA in killing deer they would be successful,” said Tessitore.
The LIFB has said all meat would go to Long Island Harvest to be processed and sent to food banks, but with a cost of $50 to $80 to process each corpse, many of the cull’s opponents are skeptical the meat will be properly used.
Tessitore called the plan “$250,000 to $500,000 to throw deer in dumpsters.”
“Hunters,” he added, “actually use the meat to provide for their family and friends – and we do it for free.”
Local residents remain divided on whether or not the federal sharpshooters should be welcomed. Usually allied, many farmers and hunters are on different sides. Some wildlife advocates favor culling the herd, saying deer overpopulation negatively affects the habitats of other animals and that being shot is more humane than starving to death.
Those wildlife activists opposed to the cull, however, were in clear view Saturday.
Calling the plan “cruel and inhumane,” ARF co-founder Sony Schotland said immunization worked to control the population in several other areas. East Hampton resident Brooke Spencer circulated a petition against the cull through the crowd.
“I’m here,” East Hampton resident Elizabeth Mensch said, “because I just think this whole situation is extremely unethical and inhumane. I believe they have every right to be here and we have no right to say if something dies or lives.”
K.K. Shapiro, Mensch’s longtime friend and former classmate in East Hampton, added, “If you really have a problem with wildlife, move to the city.”