Over the past 25 years, countless conferences on the subject of deer management have been held around Westchester County.
By Bill Lawyer
Over the past 25 years, countless conferences on the subject of deer management have been held around Westchester County. In the early years the focus was on the deer populations in the northern part of the county. The first report by the County was produced in 1991.
Only in the late 1990s did people in lower Westchester begin to see deer as a problem.
Since that time, southern Westchester communities have increasingly complained that deer populations are growing exponentially, creating numerous environmental, safety, and health-related problems. Residents and officials are looking for solutions.
So it’s not surprising that Rye and Mamaroneck jointly sponsored a summit on deer management February 25 at Rye’s City Hall before the start of the City Council’s regular meeting. Despite the extreme cold weather and treacherous black ice on roadways, it was nearly a full house in the Council Room. After the invited speakers were finished, members of the public lined up for an additional half-hour of comments and recommendations.
This conference came just two years after a similar workshop was held in Rye in 2013. The primary difference this time was the focus on the need to manage the deer population on a regional basis, not just municipality by municipality. Also, the focus was on developing a management approach that takes into consideration the much more densely populated character of lower Westchester.
After introductory remarks by Rye Mayor Joe Sack and Mamaroneck Mayor Norman Rosenblum, the guest speakers — Kevin Clarke, NY DEC wildlife biologist; John Baker, Westchester County Director of Conservation; and, Dan Aitchison, County Parks Senior Curator of Wildlife — provided a wealth of information on how communities near and far are controlling their deer populations. County representatives also reported on the results of recent on-the-ground and helicopter surveys of deer in and around the Marshlands Conservancy, a County park.
Dan Aitchison, who coordinated those surveys, did a daytime on-the-ground survey of the Marshlands and Greenhaven with several colleagues on February 16. They counted 48 deer at Marshlands and 26 in Greenhaven. By careful surveying Aitchison said they were not counting any duplicates. He added that the largest herd included 19 animals.
The following night, they used a County Police helicopter with infrared technology to do a survey of Marshlands and the Johnson Place residential neighborhood across the Boston Post Road. They spotted only four deer in the Sanctuary and 21 in the Johnson Place area.
When questioned after the meeting about the lower count, Aitchison said, “It was probably due to the extreme cold and snow cover that fewer deer were on the move and susceptible to being identified by heat sensor technology.”
Clarke explained the need for any management plan to have clearly defined objectives. Do people want fewer deer, or is that just what people think is needed to have an impact on wildlife diversity, forest health, safety from vehicle accidents, and protection from ticks that spread Lyme disease?
He stressed that from his experience in communities around the state for many years, any progress would require some sort of compromise. He discussed the pros and cons of killing by bow or bullet, or reducing births through contraception versus sterilization. Comparative costs were also mentioned as an issue. Clarke referred to a Vassar College sharpshooter program that resulted in 60 deer killed in two days.
Baker described the history of the County’s current deer management projects on county park property, which came out of a series of conferences and creation of a management plan in 2007-08.
The main goal was to reduce deer damage to forest understory through killing deer by bow. He said that the program is now in its sixth year, and a recent survey showed that the population decreased from 63 deer per square mile to 20 per square mile.
Baker said that the County currently plans to carry out a one-day cull process at Marshlands in October, led by Aitchison and the County’s two top bow hunters.
Mayor Sack expressed concern that while Marshlands is a County park, it is located in the City, and the City be involved in this plan.
During the public comments session, several people representing animal rights groups expressed complete opposition to any killing of deer. Some said that, “People are the problem, not deer.” While many were not morally opposed to killing deer, they argued that if deer were killed, others would take their place. Other speakers accepted that the deer are a problem, but urged non-lethal control methods.
Suzanne Clary, President of the Jay Heritage Center, recommended that golf courses be encouraged to participate in the program.
Mayor Rosenblum noted that the many people in attendance from Greenhaven and Mamaroneck support some sort of kill program.
One speaker from Greenwich said that they have a very successful program there, working in cooperation with Audubon Greenwich.
Summing up, the presenters stressed that no one approach will solve all the deer problems, and a regional strategy will be required. The meeting can be watched in its entirety on RyeTV (ryeny.swagit .com/play).
Upcoming deer management programs include one on March 8 at Mercy College, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the River Towns, and a daylong event April 30 at Westchester County Center.