DEM to help put plan in place to reduce deer herd
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is working with the local Deer Task Force (DTF) to help put a plan in place by the end of the year to reduce the deer herd. The argument to reduce the herd was bolstered at the Town Council meeting on June 19, when the council voted unanimously to approve several letters to the DEM, including one from First Warden Kim Gaffett, that outlined a series of issues posed by the deer herd.
According to Ruth Perfido, Chairperson of the DTF, eliminating the herd entirely “is off the table, period.” That’s because part of the DEM’s mandate is to provide hunting opportunities for state residents. Eliminating the herd completely would remove that opportunity, she said.
In order to make the case for reducing the herd, the DEM heard several perspectives in a series of letters that the council approved as formal communication with the DEM.
While numbers are inexact, the letter written by Gaffett to DEM Director Janet Coit said that a healthy deer herd would be somewhere in the range of 12.5 deer per square mile — that is, about 122 deer for an island that is 9.75 square miles in size.
But Gaffett said that based on “the January 28, 2013 DEM aerial helicopter count [Senior DEM biologist Brian] Tefft advised there were 70 to 100 deer per square mile… there are approximately 830 deer on Block Island presently.” Gaffett pointed out that there were 14 deer-related vehicular accidents in 2012.
Peter J. Krause, M.D., of the Yale School of Public Health, also wrote to the DEM to detail the health concerns that the deer herd presents to island residents.
“Review of Lyme disease cases reported by the Block Island Medical Center and our yearly serosurvey data over the past five years indicates that the frequency of tick-borne infection continues to be high,” Krause wrote. “The rates of Lyme disease and Babesiosis are similar to the highest rates for any town in New England during this same time period.”
Scott Comings of The Nature Conservancy wrote that there is hidden ecological damage created by the roaming deer. [G]razing of native plants often …[allows] for invasive plant species to be more productive. This change also negatively affects the many animals that use this vegetation,” Comings wrote.
Comings specifically referenced the endangered plant called the Northern Blazing Star. “In research done by The Nature Conservancy, we found that deer had grazed 97 percent (preventing many from going to seed) of all unfenced individuals,” Comings wrote of the flower.
Joe Sprague, owner of Sprague Farm, wrote to the DEM to say that deer overpopulation was damaging his crops and property in any number of ways.
“When the deer herd was smaller, the deer never ate my potato crops. As the herd grew, the deer started to eat the potato plant and its blossoms. Last year, they started to dig into the ground to get to the potatoes. It is getting progressively worse,” Sprague wrote. In addition, Sprague wrote, the deer were eating his hay and have damaged his electric fencing.
“There needs to be more thought put into the deer problem on Block Island and what needs to be done, and less time talking about it,” Sprague concluded.
Perfido said that talks with the DEM were now leading to action and added that the group has scheduled a weekly status update call with the DEM.
“I think we’re moving in a positive direction,” Perfido said.
The Deer Task Force, which was formed in 2009 by the Town Council of New Shoreham for the purpose of addressing Block Island deer herd issues, currently has as its members Ruth Perfido, chairperson; Becky Ballard, vice chairperson; Paul Deane, Bill McKernan, George Mellor and Lisa Sprague, with Betsy Theve as an alternate.