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Village of Belle Terre

Protesters hold signs in front of Port Jefferson Village Hall May 8. Photo by Kyle Barr

A score of people from Port Jefferson and surrounding areas gathered in front of Village Hall May 8 to protest what they said is a potential mass slaughter of innocent deer.

Protesters hold signs in front of Port Jefferson Village Hall. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Hunting tears families apart and leaves countless orphaned … they grieve for them, just like humans do,” said Gabby Luongo, a protest organizer and representative of animal rights group Long Island Orchestrating for Nature. “Trying to manage the deer through lethal means is also inefficient. When deer are killed, more deer will use those available resources, the temporary availability in the food supply will cause those does to breed at an accelerated rate.”

The protesters traveled from nearby areas like Shoreham, Selden and Fort Salonga as well as a few from the villages of Port Jeff and Belle Terre. They said they came in response to news the village has been making plans for some sort of deer management program, particularly some kind of controlled hunt or professional culling.

The protest signs read, “Don’t kill my family” and “Port Jeff: Animals are not ours to slaughter.” The signs also had the LION and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals logos printed on them.

In April, the Village of Port Jefferson hosted a public forum with representatives from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, along with other federal environmental agencies. Those representatives said deer have had a particularly harmful effect on the Long Island environment, especially in them eating vegetation and ground cover, including tree saplings that would replace the ever-shrinking forest growth of Long Island.

Mayor Margot Garant said PJ Village has not yet made a decision about its deer policy. Photo by Kyle Bar

Village code still curtails hunting by restricting the use of any firearm or bow and arrow within village limits. However, Mayor Margot Garant said they have received a letter from the New York State Attorney General, Letitia James (D), stating the village does not have the legal capability to regulate hunting, as that is a state matter.

“The community has a lot to think about and address, the board of trustees has a decision to make, whether we change the code or keep the code in place and wait for that code to be challenged,” Garant said during the public portion of the meeting, attended by the protesters. “We are not here supporting the hunting of deer.”

The mayor said that no decisions have yet been made on the issue of deer population, and at the meeting left it open to any forms of suggestions, saying for the moment, the code restricting hunting remains on the books.

However, in conversation after the April deer forum, the mayor said if a person had the right permits and brought a hunter onto their property, and the hunter was staying a lawful distance from other residents property, the village could not and would not go after those residents who broke the code.

“I think we have to take a really hard look at what we’re doing, not just with deer, but all the other animals that pay the hard price for our greed and our non-consideration of them,” Shoreham resident Madeleine Gamache said.

Protesters hold signs in front of Port Jefferson Village Hall. Photo by Kyle Barr

Protesters at the meeting said instead of a hunt or cull, the village should instead look into nonlethal sterilization programs, such as that currently taking place in Head of the Harbor with the Avalon Park & Preserve. Scientists from Tufts University and The Humane Society of the United States have taken a $248,290 grant from the park to fund the six-year study.

“We would like to see some kind of birth control,” said Belle Terre resident Yvonne Kravitz. “We’re very much opposed to having these beautiful animals hunted and killed.”

Others called for the village to change the code to allow for higher fencing, as current fencing is restricted to no more than 6 feet.

Still, others were adamant the village needs to step up and perform a culling or controlled hunt of deer.

“I don’t know one person from where I live who doesn’t want you to go out and do a big cull,” said Port Jeff resident Molly Mason.

Garant said the village had a meeting with the Village of Belle Terre May 7, and the two villages together barely make up more than 4 square miles. A healthy deer population would be 15 deer per square mile but the local mayors have said the real number could be several hundred per square mile. Belle Terre has had 33 vehicle collisions with deer on Cliff Road alone, according to the Port Jeff mayor.

The Village of Belle Terre voted at the beginning of this year to allow hunting within the village. Since then Mayor Bob Sandak said hunters have killed approximately 100 deer so far.

A family of deer stands, weary of strangers, at the Port Jefferson golf course. Photo by Kyle Barr

Environmental experts fear the impact of deer on local forests

Deer have made a mess out of the Long Island ecology.

It’s a sentiment shared by several federal employees working in multiple environmental departments. At a presentation held in the Port Jefferson Village Center April 11, Thomas Rawinski, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, said deer eat the saplings that would create new trees. They eat the bushes and flowers that would bring insects to the forests. And since they have no natural predators on Long Island, they multiply at an alarming rate.

“If your land is healthy, you can sit back and rest on your laurels,” Rawinski said. “If it’s not, like every damn forest on Long Island, then somebody has work to do, including me.”

Crowded into the Port Jefferson Village Center, residents of both the Village of Port Jefferson and Village of Belle Terre spoke about their own experiences with deer, but it all begs the question: What are the local villages going to do?

“I can tell you the level of deer damage on the east end is the worst I’ve seen in New York.”

— Thomas Desisto

The villages of Belle Terre and Port Jefferson have been working out the details on some sort of organized deer hunt, either a coordinated hunt or deer culling, one that could likely happen at the Port Jefferson golf course.

“It’s either going to be a controlled hunt or it’s going to be a cull,” Port Jeff Mayor Margot Garant said. “I don’t know which way we’re going to go but we’re going to figure it out.”

Talks have been ongoing since January, where both Garant and Belle Terre Mayor Bob Sandak have expressed their intent to split the cost of a deer culling, which would likely be performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This would involve a specialized team of hunters using thermal imaging and silenced rifles to kill deer from elevated positions at night. The cost could be expensive, with some estimates as high as $1,000 per deer.

Thomas DeSisto, a wildlife specialist with the USDA said the operation is mandated to charge for their services, as they get all their funding through cooperative service agreements. While the cost hasn’t deterred the mayors from finding a solution, DeSisto said there are issues with performing a culling on Long Island due to regulation by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 

In 2017, new legislation has restricted hunting to the point that DeSisto said fundamentally restricts the culling process. In Suffolk County, hunting is restricted to bows, or to muzzle-loaded rifles during the January hunting season. In addition, hunters are not allowed to keep loaded firearms within vehicles, use of bait is not allowed within 300 feet of a roadway, and hunters are not allowed to discharge firearms from the road.

“We’ve seen about 50 percent decrease in efficiency in our upstate program, and on Long Island we’ve seen a 75 percent decrease in efficiency,” he said. “I can tell you the level of deer damage on the east end is the worst I’ve seen in New York.”

In January, Belle Terre changed its village code to allow hunting within the premises, saying they had received an opinion by the state attorney general who said that no municipality other than New York State could regulate hunting.

While some village members shared fears of hunting going on so close to their homes, and shared a general distaste for killing animals, Sandak said so far, the change in code, and the facilitating of hunters, has been a success. He estimates since the village allowed hunting approximately 100 deer have been killed.

“Five years ago, if you were in your car and you saw a deer, you took out your phone and took a picture of it, because it was an oddity,” Sandak said. “Now, it’s unbelievable.” 

The New York State DEC allows residents to apply for Deer Damage Permits, which allow property owners to hunt or allow hunters outside of the normal season. The Belle Terre mayor said to his knowledge there are three residents in Belle Terre with DDPs. 

“Five years ago, if you were in your car and you saw a deer, you took out your phone and took a picture of it, because it was an oddity.”

— Bob Sandak

Port Jefferson currently has code on the books that says discharging any kind of firearm, bow or crossbow is strictly prohibited. Garant said village officials are still looking at changing the code so it will allow hunting, conforming to what the state attorney general has said. However, she added the village could not and would not go after residents who break the code and allow hunting on their own property.

Sue Booth Binczik, wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Wildlife Conservation, spoke to those who attended the meeting, echoing Rawinski by saying deer lead to reduced diversity, more invasive plants and fewer canopy and trees.

Deer are perhaps the most efficient devastators of the local ecology. For one, they have prolific breeding patterns. Binczik said does can start to breed at 1 year old and can give birth to two fawns per year in May and June. While deer are naturally prey animals, Long Island shows a distinct lack of natural predators to cull their numbers. An average deer can live to be 20, and while vehicles and hunters may start to pick off the occasional deer, stags can mate with any number of females, ever increasing the population. The only things left to kill the deer are recreational hunters, starvation, but especially moving vehicles.

“Under ideal conditions the deer populations can double every two to three years,” she said. “The reason they have this high reproductive rate is because they’re a prey species.” 

State DEC regulations require that hunters only use a bow and arrow and only during the hunting season, barring a DDP permit. Hunters must also shoot 150 feet away from any structures with a bow, and of course they are not allowed to trespass onto other residents’ property without permission.

Binczik said there are means to get a community involved by completing a “controlled hunt,” which would require each individual homeowner to give permission for the village to hunt on their property. Those participating community members would come together to decide on a set of rules for any hunters participating, including the qualifications of the hunters and the times the hunters would be allowed out.

“There have been communities in upstate New York that have been running for controlled hunts for decades, and they have been very happy with it,” she said.

Despite all these efforts, Rawinski remains skeptical. He said it comes from years of seeing the damage that deer have caused to the local wildlife. People, he said, have to wake up to it. While by the roadside it may seem the forests are blooming with green, but it’s a symptom of what he called the “great green lie,” that while it may seem the forests are lush, on the ground, there’s not much left. 

“It’s hard to come by solutions, especially in this suburban situation,” he said. “Humans have a can-do attitude, but I have to tell you, we’re up against our match. I don’t hate deer. I hate what people have let them do to the ecosystem.”

Port Jeff and Belle Terre would like to be absorbed by the Mount Sinai Ambulance District, which is overseen by Brookhaven.

The villages of Port Jefferson and Belle Terre are proposing a change to its ambulance service contracts with the goal of increased efficiency on the mind.

Currently emergency ambulance services are provided to homes in Mount Sinai Ambulance District, and the two incorporated villages by the Port Jefferson Ambulance Company, a not-for-profit corporation located on Crystal Brook Hollow Road in Mount Sinai. 

The ambulance company provides services to the three entities through individual contracts, with a projected 2018 total budget of $1.4 million. Port Jeff and Belle Terre villages contracted KPC Planning Services Inc. to examine the possibility of proposing to expand the Mount Sinai Ambulance District to encompass the two villages, thus simplifying the process and requiring a single contract with the company for its existing coverage area.

Port Jeff Village Attorney Brian Egan called the current set up, “not even close to efficient,” noting the three entities do not even operate on the same fiscal year, making budgeting for ambulance services more complicated than village officials say it needs to be.

“It creates a problem for us because the 51 percent majority can pass a budget without our say,” Port Jeff Mayor Margot Garant said during a May board meeting. The Mount Sinai Ambulance District makes up more than 50 percent of the ambulance company’s territory and is overseen by the Town of Brookhaven.

KPC Planning Services’ report summed up the goal behind the proposed change: “Operationally, the district managers must answer to three municipalities to make a capital, equipment or operational decision. The goal of the expanded district is to remove the village[s] from operational responsibility and vest the power exclusively in the Town [of Brookhaven].”

In actuality, Port Jefferson Village’s contract with the ambulance company expired in 2011, meaning the entities have continued a relationship without an official contract for seven years.

“It means no change in area, no change in service, no change in population — everything remains exactly the same,” Egan said in an interview. “The only structure that we’re changing is that we would no longer be a contracting party. It would be 100 percent exclusively in control of the Town of Brookhaven.”

Egan said residents should not expect to see any changes in their taxes, services or even the name on the side of an ambulance in the case of an emergency. Both villages have passed resolutions proposing the change, which will need to be acted on by Brookhaven before it can go into effect. Egan said he’s not sure of the timeline from the town’s perspective but hopes it is soon.

Consolidating services has been on the mind of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), as the town was named the winner of a $20 million grant for its proposals as part of a New York State competition earlier this year.

“Elimination of this three-ring tangle is consistent with Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine’s goal to eliminate duplication in districts, streamline decision making and consolidate services,” the KPC report said.

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