Deer continue to pose an escalating problem in Riverhead, carrying tick-borne diseases and causing car strikes -- and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski teamed up at Thursday's Riverhead town board work session to propose some solutions.
Changes to the current deer hunting program that are being proposed, Krupski said, include allowing for hunting on the weekends -- currently, no hunting is allowed on Saturdays and Sundays -- and to change the setback distance, for bow hunting only, that would be allowed from a residential home from 500 to 150 feet.
The proposed changes, Krupski said, would need approval by New York State; he has also visited the Brookhaven Town board to discuss the issue.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he'd like to work with the county and state to get Wildwood State Park open for deer hunting.
"There are 700 acres there; it needs to be opened up," he said. "We have a real problem in Wading River and this would provide some relief." Even smaller homeowners, Walter said, are erecting 12-foot deer fences to try and mitigate the roaming herds.
Councilman George Gabrielsen asked if the state would work with the town and county to open the park but also asked if, should that occur, hunters would come from all over the state, with the emphasis no longer centered on local hunting.
Councilman John Dunleavy said that although the town currently has a "conservative" deer hunting program, "We can't fill all the spots."
Krupski said the goal is to alllow the town to set the rules locally, identifying locations for hunters and how many hunters can hunt per day, "so it's not overrun with hunters."
Opening up state preserves and land would bring hunters to the area and provide a boon to the local economy, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.
Discussing the proposed changes, Krupski said deer in Riverhead and on the North Fork pose an escalating concern. "People are getting sick," he said. "People are getting injured or killed in car accidents involving deer. Something has to be done dramatically."
Josh Stiller of the NYS DEC spoke to the Riverhead Town board about the growing problem and gave a presentation on Long Island Deer Management on Thursday.
The proposed legislation would help to control the burgeoning deer population, he said. The current rule that does not allow for hunting on the weekends has cut down on hunting. Quotas are never reached during the town's hunting permit season, he said.
"No weekend hunting on Long Island limits the recreational harvest opportunity," Stiller said.
And changing the setback difference from 500 feet to 150 feet could make a big difference in the amount of huntable area available, he added.
Northaven, he said, with a setback distance of 500 feet, has less than 10 percent of huntable land allowable without landowner permission. With a setback of 150 feet, the amount of huntable land increased to almost 60 percent, without permission from a neighbor.
New York, Stiller siad, is one "of the more restrictive states."
For those who might harbor safety concerns about reducing the setback, Stiller assured, "Archery hunting is very safe."
The 150 foot setback has been proposed, he said, because most shots are within 20 to 30 feet and usually, hunters are shooting down, out of trees, in a downward trajectory. "An arrow does not go very far," he said.
In addition, Stiller said, there have been "zero" two-party archery hunter related in over 10 years in New York State, and only two, two-party hunter related incidents in Connecticut, which has had a 0-foot setback since 1975.
Southold Town, where Krupski served as a town councilman before being elected recently to the Suffolk County Legislature, has been proactive in tackling the deer problem.
Southold Town has hosted deer management forums and, in 2012, the town worked with Suffolk County to open an additional 144 acres of jointly-owned land to hunters in the fall.
In addition, Southold has offered a deer management program for archery hunters on designated town-owned lands; the program's hunters were chosen from a lottery.
Southold also provides a Peconic deer refrigerator to take advantage of free venison meat offered by hunters; Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said a good portion of that venison was donated to local food banks during his recentstate of the town address.
"Southold does a great job with having a freezer and a refrigerated truck," Stiller said.
The Riverhead town board asked about the cost of the truck; Krupski said it cost approximately $4000 to $5000 and has proven successful.
"Hunters don't want to waste good meat -- this is high quality protein," he said.
Any Southold town resident, Krupski said, can take a deer for free; butchering costs approximately $75.
Stiller said some hunters "don't want to hunt and waste" but have no place to put the deer. He said an outlet is needed, and perhaps, on the East End, towns might come together to jointly fund an outlet where deer could be stored and processed for venison distribution. Currently, he said, small processors can't handle the volume of, for example, 100 deer being dropped off.
Gabrielsen asked Krupski if Riverhead might share Southold's refrigeration unit.
Krupski said the goal is to make the location of the refrigerated unit close, and as "convenient as possible" for hunters.
Councilman John Dunleavy asked how Stiller thought the state felt about the proposed changes to the deer hunting program.
"I can't speculate," Stiller said. "But they're talking to us."
Councilman Jim Wooten asked if Stiller thought Long Island was overrun with deer because of a lack of hunting -- with no way for the deer to get off the island.
"Access is the number one deer impediment," he said.
Long Island, Stiller said, differs from the rest of New York State in that is hunting season is set in statue, and not controlled by the DEC, so the DEC cannot make changes -- that's why the draft legislation is critical.
Discussing the thousands of deer that roam the area, Stiller said it's difficult to get an accurate number. "The bottom line is that there's too many," he said, and has steadily increased since 1986.
Current tools to remediate the problem include non-lethal measures such as fencing, capture and relocation, and immunocontraception. But, Stiller said, "There is no fix-all non-lethal solution."
Lethal solutions include recreational hunting, archery and firearms, the deer management assistance program, deer damage permits, sharp shooting, and capture and euthanization.
To control the deer population, hunters need to keep taking antlerless deer, Stiller said.
Currently, one hunter is allowed per ten acres of land in Suffolk County and five per 100 acres, Stiller said.
Discussing the program, Stiller said landowners have control of hunting on their property, and said landowners cannot be found liable for accidents when providing recreational access at no charge, due to the New York State general obligations law, which protects private landowners.
Southold, Stiller added, takes advantage of a deer management assistance program, through which landowners obtain antlerless deer tags to distribute to hunters that are valid during both archery and shotgun season. Annual applications are filled out by the landowner at the town level, he said.
"Our goal is to reduce deer numbers," Stiller said.
Gabrielsen siad weekend hunting is "very important" as numbers and generations of hunters are dwindling. Opening up the weekend will encourage "fathers to take their sons out -- it's tradition." Right now, he said, "The trend is down."
"We do want to foster hunter recruitment," Stiller agreed. "If we lose hunters we lose the ability to control wildlife through hunters."
Walter said another option might be to open up the North Fork Preserve.
Krupski suggested a program should be implemented on town-owned lands and said the town should work with the DEC, to that end.