DEM criticizes deer planCouncil, members of the public react strongly
A town plan to drastically reduce the deer herd on Block Island with a managed nighttime deer hunt was dealt a blow Wednesday when a representative of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) rejected core components of the plan.
Catherine Sparks, Assistant Director of Natural Resources for DEM, called Block Island’s plan, which was based on a similar hunt carried out on Skidaway Island, Georgia, “an extirpation plan” and “a suite of illegal activities,” at the town council meeting Wednesday evening. She said “removing the opportunity [to hunt on Block Island] is not a hurdle we can overcome.”
Spark’s comments did not sit well with town councilors or the public. “I heard clearly where the state stands,” said Norris Pike. “Block Island finds deer no longer acceptable.” He called for substantial reduction of the herd because “almost everyone on Block Island has or will have Lyme Disease. Our job [as town councilors] is to provide for the health and safety of residents on Block Island. We’d like to eliminate the herd, the quicker the better.”
However, Deer Task Force member Becky Ballard said that the group “is at the very beginning of working out a plan with the DEM. We hope we can accomplish what is best for the island.”
Sparks offered to help in other ways, but at a price. Block Island would be required to offer weekend hunting in return.
Sparks proposed a pilot program of three archery-only weekends, two at the end of October and one in November, on private lands, telling Block Islanders that the policy here of not allowing weekend hunting is not a right. All other towns in Rhode Island either allow hunting or do not allow it. Block Island is the only town that is able to set their own dates for hunting, she said.
Block Island hunter and former Deer Task Force member Chris Blane objected to the October target for weekend hunts, as did resident Sven Risom. Both pointed out that the fall is a time when tourists and islanders hike in open lands.
Sparks acknowledged something does need to be done about the burgeoning deer herd on Block Island. She offered to work with the Deer Task Force to assist the community to develop a plan to support that would go “beyond the ordinary plan to help you.” She mentioned opening more public lands to hunting as a way of increasing the deer take, an avenue already pursued by the Deer Task Force. DTF member Sara McGinnes told her the lands that are left are largely governed by restrictions on hunting, something Sparks said DEM would have to “lawyer up” to try to change.
Finding ways for men and women to enjoy sport hunting is “core to our mission,” at DEM, Sparks said. “It is what we are paid to do.”
Chris Blane said he was “at odds” with the public recreational experience for hunters because Block Island is too small. Blane called for reduction of the herd by local hunters who are familiar with where the herd is and knows “who is at whose house.” Hunting on Block Island is deer reduction, not real hunting. “Hunting is going to Maine,” he said.
Councilor Sean McGarry said since DEM implied ownership and management of the island deer, they should accept liability for Lyme Disease.
McGinnes, acknowledging that the DEM staff is hired to represent the hunters, asked, “Who represents us? Where do we go from here?
Several members of the public spoke of their experiences with Lyme Disease. Annie Hall said she contracted the illness nine years ago when she was pregnant, and it caused complications. Each of her four children has contracted the disease, and her mother, in-laws and employees as well. “It is a serious epidemic. Our quality of life is affected,” she said. “It isn’t about pleasure for hunters anymore.”
Physician Rob Sigman, who has moved to Block Island as a year-round resident, said he has had Lyme Disease twice. Referring to expertise at Yale University, he said most agree the deer population has to be less than eight per square mile to get a reduction in the number of cases of Lyme Disease.
Saying she has heard the DEM’s perspective since the 1980s, Nancy Dodge challenged Sparks’ weekend hunting proposal. “We have no conservation officers here so we don’t have weekends. It takes a back seat to public health. If not your realm, is it the legislature’s, the department of public health? Your focus is hunting. You are missing the circumstances we face. Where do you suggest we go?”