DEM provides deer update — and frustration
Catherine Sparks, a representative from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) who came to the island to provide an update on reducing the deer population, said she fully expected some people to be disappointed and frustrated with what she had to say.
“There are people who will leave here frustrated because they are looking for specifics,” she said to a packed audience at the Block Island Residents Association annual meeting, which was held at St. Andrew Parish Center on Saturday, Aug. 17. Sparks is the Assistant Director for Natural Resources at the DEM.
And she was right. Not long into her talk, there were some audible indications of unhappiness. But Sparks was also clear in her message. She told the crowd that officials from the DEM and the Department of Health were fully engaged in solving the deer — and by association, the Lyme disease — problem on Block Island. There was mention of a pilot program starting before the end of the year.
During a question and answer session, island resident Margie Comings, who is also chair of the Planning Board, extracted a commitment from Sparks to return to the island no later than Nov. 1 to further update the community on what plans will be put in place to reduce the herd. Sparks has previously said that some initial plan will begin by the end of the year, which she reiterated on Saturday. “A pilot project will happen sometime during the winter season,” she said. “It’s an achievable goal, but when she was unable to provide any specifics of this pilot, the audience became restless.
Resident Bruce Johnson mentioned what seemed to be on the minds of the audience. “There have been 70 cases of Lyme disease this year. I was number 48,” said Johnson, who said the lower number of 48 was the total of recorded cases all last year on the island. “How many more?” he asked. “When are you going to get a plan to us?”
“You have a very legitimate point,” said Sparks. “I don’t want anyone thinking that anyone at DEM is dismissive.” But she added, “I cannot speak to the public health implications.”
This was the main point of contention for one audience member, who stood to say that the island community could tolerate the deer population if it did not bring Lyme disease with it.
Resident Peter Saxon mentioned that controlled hunting has eliminated the deer population in such places as Skidaway Island in Georgia and Monhegan Island in Maine. “They eliminated the problem,” Saxon said. “What’s the holdup?” (Note: Deer Task Force Chair Ruth Perfido refutes this in a letter.)
“I don’t think there’s any single holdup,” said Sparks. Issues such as who will oversee the hunt, when will it be carried out, how to dispose of the deer carcasses and other issues still need to be addressed.
Sparks has also stated that the deer herd, which numbers between 70 to 100 per square mile, will not be entirely eliminated. Some deer will always be present for recreational hunting, she said in answer to a question from the audience. “We recognize hunting as part of the fabric of the island community,” she said.
Sparks said that talks between the DEM and the DOH were happening at “cabinet level” and described DEM Director Janet Coit as “committed entirely to working with the community.” A physician from the DOH, Dr. Uptah Bandi, has been added to the team. Sparks said more than once that the DEM was not a public health organization, which is why the DOH has been brought into the discussion.
“I feel good that we’ve made these connections, and a buy-in and understanding at a very high level,” said Sparks.
Sparks, who characterized her talk as a “briefing,” also led the audience through a timeline of what had happened so far this year. Talks between the DEM and members of the town’s Deer Task Force began in earnest on April 17 and she said the immediate hurdle was to establish trust between the two groups.
She said the meetings were “not always comfortable” but that she walked away feeling wiser. “We talked a lot about building trust, about being on the same page, about being honest,” Sparks said. “We’ve had some very honest discussions.”
Although four months have passed, Sparks said she feels “very positive about where we are today because of these efforts.”