Wildlife Activists Discuss Alternatives to Sterilization

Wild deer in the woods in Amagansett, N.Y. on June 23rd, 2015
A wild deer in the woods in Amagansett. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Mara Certic

The people of East Hampton are divided and conflicted about what to do with white-tailed deer. While many say that reducing the herd could lead to a decrease in the instances of Lyme disease and would slash the number of car accidents, the general consensus at a forum hosted by the East Hampton Group for Wildlife on Thursday was that the deer problem has been exaggerated and should be reevaluated.

Larry Penny, East Hampton Town’s former natural resources director, kicked off the evening by going through a slideshow of various wooded areas on the East End.

“The deer don’t actually eat the understory to the degree they say they do,” Mr. Penny explained, while pointing out particularly lush huckleberry and blueberry plants in a forest in East Hampton. “Trying to find somewhere without a lot of understory if really tough,” he said, “Nobody’s eating it around here right now,” he added.

Randy Parsons, a former East Hampton Town Board member, gave a brief presentation on 4-poster programs, which he described as “Frontline for deer.” The feeding stations, he explained, transfer permetherin onto the deer as they eat, killing the ticks that try to feed on them.

“I do think if you treat certain areas, for example Barcelona Neck, you could substantially reduce the tick population because the deer herd there probably live there,” he said. He said that there is money in the state budget for East Hampton to buy the bait stations, but it is still trying to raise private funds to cover the cost of the maintenance and operation of the 4-poster program.

The Group for Wildlife announced the forum soon after several deer, which were supposedly sterilized in East Hampton Village through a program run by the organization, While Buffalo, which works with municipalities to control wildlife populations,  died from complications giving birth. Much of the conversation at the forum centered on the controversial sterilization program and its alternatives.

Ellen Crain, an experienced pediatrician and the wife of Bill Crain, the wildlife group’s founder, went through some of the details of deer contraception which many say is safer than sterilization because it’s reversible, temporary and does not require surgical intervention.

Ilissa Meyer with the Equine Veterinarian’s Group, and Dr. Paul Hollander, a small animal vet, said that the village’s project was concerning because there did not seem to be sufficient follow up.

Dr. Tony DeNicola, president of White Buffalo, said over the phone this week that he personally travelled to the East End after sterilized doe number 57 died while trying to give birth to two stillborn fawns.

“We always follow animals for at least a week,” Mr. DeNicola said of the typical process following the ovarectomies the organization performs. “Because if they’re going to die, you’re going to see in that week that they have problems.

The body of the first tagged deer to die following a stillbirth this year, doe number 57, was taken to the town dump before anyone thought to have the state Department of Environmental Conservation perform a necropsy.

A sterilized deer that died in similar circumstances a few weeks ago was taken to be necropsied by the DEC almost two weeks ago. Representatives from the DEC did not provide any information about the results of the necropsy by the time of this paper’s publication.

While some wildlife activists have said that the ovarectomies likely caused the birth defects and eventual deaths, professionals say that they cannot understand how this surgery would have affected deer in this way.

Dr. Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, said this week that he had been involved in dozens and dozens of deer sterilization programs and does not see the connection between the surgery and the deaths.

Dr. Curtis did point out that Long Island soil is low in selenium, and that selenium deficiencies can lead to high numbers of stillbirths in livestock and, possibly, deer.

Ginnie Frati, the executive director of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, said over the phone this week that there is in fact a selenium deficiency here in the wild. Over the years, she said, the center has probably received about 10 calls over the years of stillbirths. In fact, she said, she saw an untagged deer running along Noyac Road a few weeks ago that appeared to be trying to give birth to a stillborn fawn.

“I personally wish they would leave the deer alone,” she added. “I think this is extreme and it’s very, very expensive.”