By Kitty Merrill
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It's over . . . at least on the South Fork and at least for this season. On the heels of a State Supreme Court judge granting a Temporary Restraining Order preventing East Hampton Town and Village from participating in a proposed deer culling program, officials in both municipalities last Friday decided to step away from the program for this year.
East Hampton Village was the sole South Fork municipality that signed up for the program and allocated its contribution. But by Friday afternoon, Mayor Paul Rickenbach announced the village board's intention to withdraw from the deer management program spearheaded by the USDA and the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Village officials wanted to address the deer management issues "on a regional basis," but since surrounding municipalities didn't sign on, "It no longer seems a project the village can tackle on its own," Rickenbach said. With a suggestion that the cull program isn't dead forever, the mayor concluded, "The Village remains committed in moving forward in this manner with its local government counterparts."
Minutes after the village decision was released, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell circulated a memo on the subject. The administration of Cantwell's predecessor, Bill Wilkinson, signed on to the program, but didn't proffer the financial contribution.
He recapped events to date: an Article 78 legal proceeding had been filed by wildlife advocates challenging the program, additional suits may be in the offing based on correspondence town officials received, the response from private landowners looking to participate in the cull was "minimal," and, based on case law, a full scale environmental review would be required before the program could move forward.
"For these reasons," Cantwell wrote, "it appears certain the Town of East Hampton will not be in a position to participate in the Long Island Farm Bureau program this year."
The town could reconsider next year, the supervisor said,"if participation is open next year and a more complete environmental analysis is completed." For now, he wants to see the town continue to implement its own deer management program.
Cantwell believes the town should continue to support hunting as the main method for reducing and managing the deer population. He listed compiling accurate data regarding the population and its effect on the environment, public safety, property and crops as a key step and called for improved collection of such data.
The supervisor also articulated an array of additional strategies to explore. They include the creation of a deer hotline, posting educational information on the town's website, seeing if more town properties could be used during hunting season, helping to coordinate private property owners and hunters during hunting season, and helping them get nuisance permits, plus pursuing nuisance permits on town properties. Finally, Cantwell suggested town officials help facilitate the donation of venison to local food pantries.
With East Hampton Town and Village opting out for this year, Southold Town is the only East End municipality green lighting a cull within its borders. Last week Supervisor Scott Russell told The Independent that while he was not "enthusiastic" about the cull concept, "We have to get a handle on this."
The North Fork town voted last month to buck up $25,000 for its share of the cull program. Promoted by the Long Island Farm Bureau, the program originally called for teams of federal sharpshooters who would target does and fawns in an effort to reduce the regional deer population. Mobile teams would use night vision and sound suppressing equipment to shoot the animals. Bait stations would also be used to lure deer to a specific locale where they could be killed.
Late last year, when it looked as if the regional cull was a go, advocates and groups such as the East End Group for Wildlife mobilized. A petition that boasted over 10,000 signatures was circulated and a rally last month in East Hampton Village drew hundreds of participants. Lawsuits were filed and threatened, and last Thursday, just before news that East Hampton Town and Village were pulling out, a Temporary Restraining Order was issued.
Social media provided a platform for the anti-cull crowd. Following Friday's news, a post on the East Hampton Group for Wildlife Facebook page stated simply, "goodness has prevailed at this time and this place." In a release issued Monday group founder Bill Crain called the decision to halt the cull in East Hampton "a significant victory for the humane treatment of wildlife."