FINS Plans First Phase of Deer Culling Project

Photo by Lauren Chenault

By Shoshanna McCollum ~ Sharpshooters from the U.S Department of Agriculture will commence on a project to cull the local white-tailed deer population in the very near future, according to an anonymous source who reached out to Fire Island News recently. The locations of this purported project include Fire Island’s west end at the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) and Robert Moses State Park boundary line, as well as the properties surrounding William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach and under FINS jurisdiction.

Additional details are as follows:

• New York State Parks Department is acting in partnership with FINS, and contributing funds to pay the U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters.

• Bait stations have been, or will be, placed in the locations mentioned by late January in order to get deer accustomed to feeding in designated areas.

• Refrigerated trucks will be brought into said locations to process the harvested deer meat, which will be used to feed the needy.

• Culling was scheduled to begin in February/March, but it is unclear if the government shutdown has affected the timeline.

To many Fire Islanders this feels like the other shoe has finally dropped since FINS announced its Deer Management Environmental Impact Statement was entered in the Federal Register on New Year’s Eve 2015. The following May of 2016, National Park Service issued a finalized 67-page Record of Decision (ROD) on the Impact Statement. The ROD contained significant modifications to the plan. “Direct-reduction techniques” fell to a lower priority tier within the plan, to be enacted only when funding became available to do so. Also FINS’ original finalized plan to euthanize deer within Fire Island’s residential communities was deemed “unpractical” and curtailed accordingly.

In October of 2016, Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based not for profit advocacy group, filed legal action against FINS on said plan. Two additional organizations, Animal Welfare Institute in Washington D.C and Wildlife Preserves, Inc. in New Jersey, filed a separate joint motion that dovetailed the retirement of former FINS Superintendent Christopher Soller. Those who saw Soller as the pugnacious force behind this controversial Deer Plan hoped it would fade away with his departure. Such notions were dashed when the Friends of Animals case was dismissed from U.S. District Court by Judge Sandra Feuerstein last July.

Alexcy Romero took the helm as the new FINS superintendent last fall, and plans to coordinate the deer culling followed in short order our source said – the logic being that with both legal actions dismissed, the time had come to act.

Marjorie Fishman, public relations manager with Animal Welfare Institute relayed in an email that Animal Welfare Institute recently received a “somewhat similar” tip about the sharpshooting that is allegedly slated to take place. However she was adamant that their legal suit against FINS was still very much active in the court system.

“We’re still waiting for the judge to issue a ruling on the Defendants’ motion to partially dismiss, or in the alternative, for partial summary judgment, [and] don’t expect the judge to issue a decision until spring – and that was before the shutdown. With the shutdown, we may not see a ruling until the summer,” Ms. Fishman added. “The Defendants in the case previously agreed that the White-Tailed Deer Management Plan would not be enacted in so far as deer will not be killed, culled or hunted through the duration of the litigation. We have received no communication from Defendants’ counsel about any changes to this.”

Fishman further explained that when deer culling is employed in parks, the process usually begins with a published notice in a local newspaper, with similar notices posted in conspicuous locations throughout the park – including kiosks, trail heads, and such.

Anita Shotwell, managing trustee of Wildlife Preserves, Inc. concurs with Fishman:

“Our case absolutely has not been decided. Not only is it still under consideration, we are optimistic,” she said.

However Shotwell sounded somewhat surprised when she learned that part of the sharpshooting was slated to take place on the Robert Moses/FINS boundary line.

“You mean they have arranged for this to take place on lands that are presently not in dispute?” she asked. “I’m bewildered at how [FINS] has changed their management tactics so arbitrarily over time, and what they are calling ‘preservation.’ They say this plan to thin the deer herd is necessary because of changes to the tree canopy over time – but that’s not what we saw when we were there last summer. We saw plenty of new growth [in the Sunken Forest,] including young holly trees, so I don’t know where this data is coming from.”

Wildlife Preserves is something of a grandparent to the Sunken Forest and perhaps Fire Island National Seashore itself, as their grassroots movement, known as Sunken Forest Preserves, saved Fire Island’s primeval maritime forest from development in the 1950s, and thus sowed the germ that brought about the crusade the following decade to stop a highway from bisecting the barrier island. When Wildlife Preserves deeded Sunken Forest to Fire Island National Seashore in 1966, covenants required these lands be maintained in their natural state and a sanctuary for the wildlife that exist within it. Animal Welfare Institute asserts that authorization of hunting as well as construction of a proposed fence surrounding the forest was in violation of the agreement that is now over a half-century old.

“We manage a number of properties in New York and New Jersey,” Shotwell added. “We manage them without the need for hunting.”

Fire Island News delayed publication of this article to afford an FINS opportunity to respond after the 35-day federal government shutdown came to an end on Jan. 25, 2019. Public affairs specialist Elizabeth Rogers wrote the following in an email on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 29:

Funding for deer reduction in 2019 has been approved. Plans are in place to carry out an initial phase of deer reduction at the William Floyd Estate, which is closed to the public until mid-May. If the approved funding is secured we will announce plans to proceed with this phase of the deer management plan via press release. As you know, our deer and vegetation research and monitoring, and outreach and education efforts are ongoing.”

Our calls to New York State Department of Parks and Recreation, and New York Department of Conservation remain unreturned to date.* Friends of Animals informed us that they are in the process of appealing the ruling issued by the U.S. District Court on July 27, 2018.

Editor’s Notes: This article was updated on February 3, and February 8, 2019. The original version of this article stated that Wildlife Preserves, Inc. managed property in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. This was a misunderstanding on the part of Fire Island News, and we have revised the text accordingly.

Fire Island National Seashore contacted us as well, stating our article “may lead to some confusion,” and provided the following updated statement: “While the National Park Service (NPS) works closely with New York State Parks as neighbors, deer management efforts at state parks are guided by a separate management planning process and are not part of the approved Fire Island National Seashore Deer Management Plan. Nor are state park funds going to support deer management on NPS lands. In the event federal funding is secured, Fire Island National Seashore has plans to implement deer reduction on the closed William Floyd Estate, not ‘properties surrounding William Floyd Estate.'” They further stated that Superintendent Romero …”is working to implement components of a number of planning efforts completed during former Superintendent Chris Soller’s tenure. Plans such as the General Management Plan, the Visitor Experience Plan, the Wilderness Breach Management Plan, and the Deer Management Plan incorporated the best available science as well as public review and comment. As such, Superintendent Romero will look to these plans to guide management decisions in the coming decade.”

* New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation confirmed their agreement with U.S. Department of Agriculture for sharpshooter culling of white tailed deer at Robert Moses State Park seventeen days after our initial contact for comment. Dates are still to be determined, as the federal government shutdown has resulted in planning delays.

This news item has been included and updated  in “Marking Waves: 2019 in Review with Fire Island News” article.