Town Council formally calls off deer cull
Emotions ran high at a special Town Council meeting on Friday, Feb. 21.
Although there was just one item on the agenda, the formalization of a decision made informally on Feb. 19 to call off the deer culling operation, multiple motions were made and some of the exchanges were heated. The culling had started weeks ago when corn meal was laid down as bait, but the actual appearance of sharpshooters was not to begin until Feb. 24.
The council, in the end, voted to reschedule the Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) cull for the 2014-2015 hunting season, with the hope that all three parties involved — the Town the DEM and the company that would come to the island to reduce the deer herd, White Buffalo — could all sit down and evaluate the process.
“The town needs to go back to square one,” said councilor Gary Ryan.
First Warden Kim Gaffett remarked: “The devil is in the details.” Catherine Sparks of the DEM had previously said to The Block Island Times that the rollout of the program was not as smooth as she would have liked.
During the meeting, motion after motion was made to get the wording just right — all being defeated in split votes from the four councilors in attendance until there was finally agreement an hour and a half later. (Second Warden Ken Lacoste was unable to attend the meeting.)
It appeared that there were three factors that, taken together, was impeding the effectiveness of the program. Instead of the hoped-for 200 head reduction of the deer herd, White Buffalo, Inc., a 501-(c)-3 corporation based in Connecticut, had communicated to the Town Council that, given the circumstances, only approximately 30 deer could be expected to be culled.
White Buffalo had also expected to be able to use suppressors, or silencers, while shooting but word came down from the R.I. Attorney General’s office that the company would not be exempt from Rhode Island’s law prohibiting the use of suppressors on firearms.
Further complicating the cull was the concurrent hunting in nearby areas that may have been making the herd jittery, according to what was said at the meeting.
Another area of concern that White Buffalo had raised was that there had not been enough baiting time, although residents at the meeting contended that they had simply used the wrong bait.
“Our deer don’t eat corn,” said Cathy Payne.
Councilor Norris Pike remarked that he wasn’t sure that the baiting sites used were the best ones and that the deer were hardly touching the bait. Residents had also approached The Block Island Times saying that they felt some of the corn meal had been set out too close to their homes.
“It would behoove us to wait a season,” Pike said.
But what seemed to concern most of the 15 citizens who attended the meeting was not calling off of the cull, but the prospect of the general public (through town funds) having to pay for the costs that had been incurred to date, approximated at $12,000 to $15,000. Previously, it was thought that all costs incurred would be paid from funds donated specifically for the project from private donors. However, that particular expenditure was not on the agenda for the meeting, although the Town Council did entertain some discussion of the matter.
Local hunter Chris Blane, who had reservations about the possible over-estimation of the deer population on the island, and thus over the need for the cull at all, was especially critical of White Buffalo, which had communicated to the council that they would like to train local hunters in their methods and to involve them in the cull when (and if) it resumed next season.
“Local hunters could teach White Buffalo a thing or two,” retorted Blane, adding that the cull had taken away “three weeks of the best hunting in years” and that he didn’t see that White Buffalo had taken anyone’s input on Block Island. “There’s a little arrogance here.” He reiterated that he didn’t think that White Buffalo should be reimbursed for their costs since they “didn’t do their homework.”
Payne, who also was against using town funds to pay for the baiting said that “A good part of the process is to admit you’ve failed.”
Slightly later in the meeting, John “Doc” Willis shouted out, “You, the Town Council, have been duped by the DEM. You have been duped by White Buffalo and we have been duped by you!”
After repeatedly being told that he was “out of line” by Gaffett, Willis stormed out of the meeting, shouting: “You never listen!”
“In fairness to White Buffalo, they were kept at arm’s length [from the town] by DEM,” said Town Manager Nancy Dodge. She added that in conversation with White Buffalo’s president Anthony DeNicola, he had expressed dismay by telling her that they had never seen a situation like this.
“The biggest pushback against using local hunters has been from DEM,” said Dodge.
Finally, in what would be at least the fourth motion proposed, the council settled on the following motion, which passed unanimously: “That we request the DEM to reschedule the deer reduction program to the 2014/15 season and that the town meet with DEM and White Buffalo to discuss the future of the project.”