Town considers DEM deer proposal
Now it's up to the island.
After debating the issue for decades, island residents now have the details of a comprehensive plan to reduce the deer that has been proposed by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
More than 100 island residents attended a Tuesday, Dec. 10 council meeting to debate the plan, a meeting that was also attended by three representatives of the DEM, a member of the state Department of Health and the four sitting members of the New Shoreham Town Council.
During the almost three-hour meeting, it was pointed out that the implementation of the DEM plan would not be possible without the island's "cooperation." This was a word repeatedly said by DEM Assistant Director for Natural Resources, Catherine Sparks.
It was difficult to determine the mood of the crowd. Of the roughly 10 people that spoke, a few were opposed to the plan. However, many of those in attendance that chose not to speak Tuesday night have previously spoken in favor of the plan.
"I've been here for a while, and I've shot a few deer, and I oppose this," said Chris Blane, a local hunter. "There are people here who are qualified and could do this for a lot less money. You are going to bring people here to hunt who have not set foot on this island before."
DEM representatives attended this meeting to explain the proposal: a non-recreational hunt is scheduled to begin early next year with a professional sharpshooting company called White Buffalo, Inc. During the first year, the plan is designed to reduce the island's deer population by about 200, according to the DEM. According to DEM wildlife biologist Brian Tefft, there may be as many as 1,200 deer on the island.
The first year of this five-year plan is projected to cost $128,300. According to Block Island Residents Association (BIRA) President Bill Penn, the cost will be covered by private donations, with fundraising by the Block Island Deer Task Force and BIRA.
"We have enthusiastically agreed to undertake a private capital campaign. Not a dollar of taxpayer money will be spent," said Penn. Deer Task Force members agreed, stating confidence in their ability to raise the money.
Even that didn't satisfy one resident. "The same people who are going to pay for the plan aren't willing to work with the Block Island hunters. The power needs to be back in the hands of the hunters," said resident Cathy Payne, who owns land near the proposed hunting location.
Payne expressed concern that her granddaughter will "lose three months" of her life enjoying Block Island if this hunt occurs, out of safety concerns because of the hunting.
"You've got to look at priorities if you're going to commit donations for this budget. Some of these prices can get slashed right down," said island resident Doug Michel, who said he was not speaking either for or against the plan.
Michel also asked that there be more notification about where and when this hunting takes place, a comment echoed by several people.
"My concern is for notifying the abutters. I'm not satisfied with the way the town handles hunting on private lands and notifying people," said Karen Carlone.
During recreational hunting, hunters cannot fire a weapon within 500 feet of a home without homeowner permission. According to DEM wildlife biologist Tefft, this "500-foot rule" does not apply to this non-recreational hunt, because the DEM needs permission from property owners.
However, neighboring property owners — even if they have a home within 500 feet from the hunt — do not have to provide permission, according to Tefft.
But Sparks said the DEM would consider relocating if a neighbor was adamantly opposed. "I don't think we have a need to upset a property owner," Sparks said.
Some of the land being proposed for the hunt is owned by the Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Conservancy. These groups have written letters supporting the plan, said First Warden Kim Gaffett. However, none have signed a formal agreement.
Blane found this frustrating because, as he said, he and other hunters have asked to hunt on these lands and were previously denied. "These are all groups that will not allow hunting on their land for local hunters," commented Blane.
"We do allow hunting on quite a few of our properties," said Land Trust Chair Barbara MacMullan. "And this proposal is not hunting — it's quite different from hunting. We have said in the past that we were open to other methods."
Cliff McGinnes Sr., questioned the effectiveness of the proposal as a whole, asking if the plan would actually reduce the amount of deer by 200. Several others echoed this comment.
Also, resident Arklay King asked if reducing the deer will reduce the island's tick population. John Fulton, a representative of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that it will reduce the tick population — although he did state the ticks can still feed from livestock, humans and other mammals.
"Ticks prefer deer," said Fulton. "But you are correct that some ticks do remain."
Town Council opinion
The New Shoreham Town Council must approve the plan before it goes into effect.
According to the published meeting agenda, the council is expected to vote on the plan on Wednesday, Dec. 18. As of today, there are four sitting members on the council due to the recent resignation of a member who left to be able to continue doing business with the town.
At the meeting, First Warden Kim Gaffett asked Town Councilors for comments first, before the audience was allowed to speak. Gaffett did not provide her opinion on the plan.
Councilor Chris Warfel asked several questions. Warfel said he would want meat harvested from the deer to be provided to island residents and those in need of food assistance. He also requested more public notification, such as orange flags around town, about where and when the hunting is performed.
Second Warden Ken Lacoste asked how the location for the hunt, the southwest corner on the island, was selected.
Tefft said the location appeared to have a high number of deer, and also included open conservation space, which meant there were fewer landowners from which to request permission.
"What if, for whatever reason, you do a survey of the land and less than 100 deer are found? Is there a secondary location," asked Lacoste.
DEM Assistant Director for Natural Resources Catherine Sparks did not provide a specific alternative.
Councilor Norris Pike echoed the sentiment for more local hunters to be involved: "I had hoped we could have some more local hunters. I thought it would be good to sort of enhance our own economy, and it might enhance the willingness of residents knowing our local guys are involved."
While discussing the plan, Sparks continually called it a "partnership" between the DEM and the town.
"We want public input, and we want public support," said Sparks. "One of the most crucial elements is the cooperation of the community."
Sparks said that the DEM decided on a "bait and shoot" plan because it would be the quickest, have the biggest impact, and be the most cost effective.
As to the $128,300 price tag for the first year of the plan, Sparks said: "This is a budget that is designed to be high so there are no surprises. We fully anticipate it will be substantially less. But it is expensive, and it is labor intensive."
Tefft explained the process briefly: the DEM would select specific sites located in the southwest corner of the island. The deer would be baited to the area, and the professional hunters, referred to as "sharpshooters," would shoot from elevated tree stands. The sharpshooters will use .223 caliber firearms, with a muffler to reduce noise, according to Tefft.
Tefft provided a summary of alternative methods to reducing the deer herd, explaining why the DEM determined each to not be effective. For example, he said fencing the deer would work as a short-term solution, but not as a long term solution. He said using a fertility method is an expensive, emerging technology that is "not suitable" for Block Island.
"The scary thought is our deer population is potentially over 1,000 deer currently. That's 80 to 100 deer per square mile," said Tefft. "The ecologically healthy level is determined to be 10 to 15 deer per square mile or less."
(See related story here.)