Council approves concept for deer herd reductionDEM approval needed next
In a 3 to 2 vote, the Town Council this week approved a plan that is designed to reduce or possibly eliminate the island’s deer population. The so-called Skidaway Plan, first presented by the Deer Task Force (DTF), will allow hunting at night and was approved only in concept. The plan will need approval from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), which sets hunting rules and regulates the town’s deer population. If the DEM approves the plan, the Deer Task Force will fill in the final details. There are no dates or times set for the hunt as of yet.
The discussion was spirited. Second Warden Ken Lacoste and councilors Norris Pike and Sean McGarry voted for the plan; Councilors Kim Gaffett and Chris Warfel were against.
Members of the council questioned specific parts of the plan, calling for modifications and suggesting the need for more detail. The final vote occurred after some members of the public pointed out that the council had appointed the task force to consider all options. After four years of deliberation and study, the Skidamore Plan was the DTF’s recommendation and the council acted on that proposal.
Two sticking points emerged among the council members and some members of the public that attended the meeting. Night hunting roused opponents who felt it was a safety issue. A DTF recommendation to eliminate the deer herd entirely rather than herd reduction was also criticized. Others at the meeting were in favor of reducing the herd rather than total elimination.
First to speak out against the night hunt was John “Doc” Willis. “How many people in this room will be sleeping with the sounds of hunters? I worry about bullets coming through my bedroom,” he said.
Though the plan calls for several night hunts with baiting and spotlighting, the plan recommends using only local hunters and also calls for obtaining permission from private landowners to hunt on their property.
Former DTF Chair Mary Sue Record said there has been night hunting at Block Island Airport this year, and resident Cliff McGinnes said he recalled a time when islanders “jacklighted” at night to hunt.
The plan is named after a similar effort in Skidaway Island, Georgia. Night hunting on Skidaway Island has been successful and safe, according to George Mellor, a member of the task force. Other members of the DTF who presented the plan were Becky Ballard and Sara McGinnes. DTF Chair Ruth Perfido was unable to attend the meeting. The DTF had submitted the plan in writing prior to the council session and in time to have $12,500 in funds included in the 2014 annual budget. Elimination or even substantial reduction of the herd would take several years.
Former DTF member Maggie Komosinski disagreed and asked why baiting and hunting during the day could not be tried first. “Why take such a huge leap?” she asked about night hunting. First Warden Kim Gaffett agreed with her.
Mellor explained that the hunt, which would be conducted between 10 p.m. and 2 or 3 a.m., would be safer than in the daytime when people are up and about. “The deer are moving at night. They are nocturnal,” Mellor said.
Though the proposal approved by the council called for elimination of the herd, hunters attending the council meeting disagreed with that concept. Chris Blane, a former member of the DTF, called the deer a resource. “Wipe out hunting?” he asked. “I resent that.” Blane also reported that deer he had taken were very healthy, not malnourished.
Paul Deane, a member of the DTF, a hunter and a local police officer, supported the plan but recommended reducing the herd to 100 head rather than eliminating it. He said a herd of 100 could be maintained through hunting. Deane said the reason the herd had proliferated to such a large size (a 2011 Yale University flyover put the herd at 510) was because there was no hunting season on the island for some years after the deer were introduced here by the DEM. The “no hunting” rule was a request of the town council at that time.
Town councilors agreed the modified Skidaway plan as presented needed more detail before it could be put into action. Mellor, Ballard and McGinnes said the DTF was aware that more details were needed, but said DEM approval of the concept was necessary before any more time should be put into the details of the plan.
The primary reason to reduce the deer herd is to control Lyme disease, according to members of the audience who spoke. Resident Fraser Lang said he has had the illness five times. Resident Jean Kittredge said last summer alone she contracted the disease three times. Others noted the high incidence of the disease on the island and the threat to public health.
Mellor said the DTF had looked into other options to reduce the herd, such as the introductions of insecticide, birth control and sterilization. All are far more costly than the $12,500 per year the DTF would be requesting for the night hunt.
Police Chief Vin Carlone called for more information. “Hunting is dangerous,” Carlone said. “I’d like to see in writing where it is going to happen, what are the boundaries, [where] you are recruiting hunters from and who [they are], and who will train them.”
Councilors Pike and McGarry led the charge to approve the plan in concept. “We need a frank discussion with the DEM,” Pike said. “We have a problem we need to solve. I’m not concerned about the health of the deer herd. I’m concerned about the health of Block Islanders.”
McGarry agreed, saying, “We need to go to them [DEM] and say this is what we want. DEM owns the deer. We can’t control our deer.”
Pike made a motion “to embrace the DTF recommendation for the Skidaway plan in concept and meet with DEM to resolve this problem.” McGarry seconded the motion, which was then approved 3-2.
Hunting season set for Nov. 4
The council also set hunting dates for 2013-2014. Though the Deer Task Force had requested starting all weapons on Oct. 15, Gaffett disagreed, voicing concern that October is a busy time for visitors. She suggested starting shotgun hunting on Nov. 4, leaving October to archers. She made a motion and it passed with unanimous support.