Oh Deer! FoA Intervenes to Stop National Park Service from Eradicating Deer on Fire Island
by Nicole Rivard
It is estimated that 300 residents live on Fire Island National Seashore in New York year round, but during the summer season, that number swells to approximately 30,000 people, with upwards of 2 million visitors every year. However, the National Park Service is blaming the island’s deer population, estimated to be between 268 and 457, for over-browsing and the destruction of native vegetation and natural resources.
The agency also claims it is necessary to use lethal methods, including sharpshooting, capture and euthanasia, as well as a public hunt in the wilderness section of the island, to prevent undesirable human-deer interactions in the Fire Island communities. It wants to eradicate more than 85 percent of the deer who call Fire Island home.
That’s why Friends of Animals (FoA) filed a lawsuit against the Park Service—another case that exemplifies FoA’s goal of achieving ethical consideration for all animals. “Clearly, it is unethical to slaughter hundreds of deer just because it is cheaper and faster than nonlethal methods,” said Courtney McVean, staff attorney for FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.
“The Plan/Environmental Impact Statement at issue in this case authorizes the eradication of more than 85 percent of the deer living on Fire Island National Seashore. The NPS approved this plan despite significant gaps in data. The NPS was advised by its own science advisory team to utilize nonlethal methods before even considering the lethal methods authorized by this plan, methods such as fencing in combination with modifying human behavior, education and translocating deer to the wilderness section of the island.”
Friends of Animals is arguing there is a critical gap in the scientific data about the movement of deer up and down Fire Island. The Park Service’s accusations against deer are said to occur predominantly on the western side of the island, however a majority of the deer to be killed reside on the eastern side where deer populations are stable and within acceptable ranges that protect habitat.
“Notably, the Park Service initiated a white-tailed deer movement study on Fire Island National Seashore in 2014, but failed to include any information about the data that may have been garnered from this study,” McVean explained. “The frequency and timing of deer movements between Fire Island communities and the natural areas is essentially unknown. What is known is that most deer remain in smaller, established home ranges. Yet the NPS erroneously determined that deer should be managed at an island-wide deer density of 20-25 deer per square mile.”
Meanwhile the Park Service and its scientific advisors acknowledged the physical and behavioral differences between the eastern and western subpopulations of deer on the Seashore, as well as the diverse issues associated with vegetation and human-deer interactions in the different geographic areas there.
“Yet the NPS inexplicably proceeded to choose a one-size-fits-all approach across the seashore and completely ignored the substantial evidence that eastern and western populations of deer necessitate different, individual approaches to management,” McVean said.
FIRE ISLAND’S WILD SIDE—NO HUNTING ALLOWED
If reducing undesirable human-deer interactions is the driving force behind the plan, Friends of Animals argues, and scientists agree, that there are better options to reduce these interactions, such as modifying human behavior. For example, the Park Service led an educational campaign from 1998-2002 to eliminate deer feeding within the Fire Island communities, which was considered a great success. However, due to lack of funding, the program was discontinued.
Moreover, the Park Service is failing to consider that sharpshooting and hunting is not only lethal to deer, it could disrupt or harm the wide variety of other animals and birds who reside in the diverse terrestrial habitats of Fire Island. This is mind-blowing for an agency that touts wildlife viewing on its Fire Island National Seashore website.
One of the most exciting times to view wildlife on Fire Island, according to the NPS, is during spring and fall migration. Why? Because in September and October, thousands of birds and monarchs make a temporary home on the barrier beach as they rest and refuel along their southbound journey.
In winter, visitors are likely to see snowy owls or encounter seals hauled out on the beach. And red fox call Fire Island home year-round. The federally threatened and New York State endangered piping plover has been observed in the designated wilderness area where the proposed public hunt would take place.
Ironically, the Fire Island National Seashore even has a piping plover monitoring and protection program that begins in March as the birds’ courtship and mating usually occurs from late March through early June. And bald eagles are occasionally sighted there too. Their presence is recorded during the annual fall hawk watch by Fire Island Raptor Enumerators near the Fire Island Lighthouse.
It is no surprise that the Park Service’s deer management plan has sparked ire with residents of and visitors to Fire Island who enjoy wildlife watching. The agency needs to get with the program and realize that wildlife watching, not just on Fire Island but all over the country, is a favorite pastime for millions in the United States. According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation issued in August, more than 86 million people 16 years old and older participated in wildlife watching in 2016, up from 71 million in 2011. On the contrary, 11.5 million people, a paltry 5 percent of the population 16 years or older, went hunting, down from 17.7 million in 2011.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the Park Service planned to allow a public hunt on Fire Island National Seashore. In 1988-1989, it held an experimental public hunt for the purpose of scientific research, open to both archery and firearms. The public hunt resulted in the deaths of 63 deer. The public hunt was extremely controversial, even resulting in litigation, and was terminated early. Let’s hope this one is over before it’s even started.