Block Island deer herd will be thinned out by sharpshooters

A young buck appears on the Hodge property, one of many private parcels not open to hunting on Block Island. Deer take refuge on such land, and their numbers continue to increase.
A young buck appears on the Hodge property, one of many private parcels not open to hunting on Block Island. Deer take refuge on such land, and their numbers continue to increase. Providence Journal

It might seem quaint today how Block Islanders ferried over four does and four bucks from the mainland 45 years ago to establish a deer herd for their idyllic ocean community - if only it hadn't come to this.

Last week, town officials confronting a population that has grown wildly out of control decided they had no choice other than to hire experts to visit their island and systematically shoot deer - a first for Rhode Island.

Concerned about damage to landscaping, crops and plant ecology, as well as the spread of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme, the New Shoreham Town Council not only set aside discomfort with ordering the large-scale killing of deer but also the need for islanders to pick up the six-figure tab.

The culling could cost as much as $128,000 this winter, including $29,000 for the rendering of carcasses. But Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management officials say that the cost is likely to come in significantly lower.

Comparable amounts are likely to be needed over the next four years to progressively reduce the herd from an estimated 800 to 1,000 deer down to 100 to 150, according to Brian Tefft, a deer biologist with the state Department of Environmental Management. The goal is 10 to 15 deer per square mile on the 9.5-square-mile island.

How did eight Virginia white-tailed deer - brought to the island from 1967 to 1968 by locals presumably eager to hunt and gaze at wildlife - create such a problem?

For starters, deer can reproduce quite prolifically.

"The population can double over a very short period of time," Tefft said.

Does can have offspring every year and it's not uncommon for them to have twins, if given a chance.

On Block Island, they sure get that chance.

The island presents some unique circumstances when it comes to deer, Tefft said. For starters, there are no natural predators. Elsewhere, coyotes help control herds, preying on juveniles and birthing does. But no coyotes live on the island.

Although plenty of deer are struck by motor vehicles on the mainland, Block Island has few roads and minimal traffic.

And while hunting is allowed and is commonly relied upon to help manage populations, it has not been effective on the island.

"Block Island has a lot of private land and a lot of it is not open to hunting, so those areas become refuges for the deer," Tefft said.

New Shoreham initially sought the DEM's approval to undertake a culling using its own hunters, according to Catherine Sparks, assistant director for natural resources. But the state turned down the request out of concern for public safety and an inability to ensure that the hunters were skilled and their program effective.

"They followed up and said, 'You help us do it,'" Sparks said.

After studying the situation on the island and reviewing what other states have done to address deer nuisance problems, the DEM came up with a plan.

First, it filed emergency regulations establishing a "non-recreational" program to reduce "an imminent risk to the health, safety and welfare of Block Island's natural resources."

Then the state recommended hiring Connecticut-based White Buffalo, a company with which Tefft had become familiar at conferences for deer managers and which he tapped to help develop the Block Island plan. It is led by Anthony DeNicola, who has a doctorate in wildlife biology.

Putting the contract out to bid was deemed unwise, said Sparks.

"They have been in business for 18 years. They have experience and training in wildlife behavior. (DeNicola) has a Ph.D. He's also a sharpshooter and he hires other sharpshooters," said Sparks.

White Buffalo has been hired to cull deer herds in Princeton, N.J.; Akron, Ohio; Cayuga Heights, N.Y; and in numerous other Northeastern and Midwestern states.

"This is not recreational hunting," said Sparks. "This is a much more strategic and disciplined approach to culling a deer herd. A bidding process looks to hire the lowest bidder, which is not necessarily the best qualified all of the time. … The low bid could come from six guys in Kansas who have never done this before."

The Town Council voted 3 to 0 on Wednesday to approve the plan, reflecting what Tefft said was an estimated 70 percent of islanders favoring the plan. The number-one concern of opponents is safety, he said.

Once all the agreements have been completed, preparations will begin for White Buffalo staff to arrive in February.

Confining themselves to the lesser-developed southwestern part of the island, they will lure deer to about 15 to 20 selected sites with corn bait, Tefft said. Once the deer become habituated, sharpshooters in elevated platforms will fire at them with .223-caliber rifles, which uses slower and smaller bullets.

"You don't have that loud boom and bang," Tefft said, adding that "it's soft lead. It kills the deer instantly and humanely but doesn't pass through and hit something else."

When a group of deer arrive at the bait, the sharpshooters will strive to take down group leaders first and to not allow any deer to escape, Tefft said. That could spread fear of the location throughout the herd.

The goal for this winter is to reduce the herd by 200 animals, Tefft said.

Another out-of-state company has been recommended to deal with the carcasses. Windham Butcher Shop, of Maine, runs a mobile meat processing service that cannot be found in Rhode Island, said Sparks. The alternative would be cost-prohibitive trucking of the deer to Johnston for quartering and then to Westerly for further processing.

Windham, said Sparks, has experience with moose season up north. The mobile equipment is used to skin, bone, grind and package the meat in 10-pound packages and then to keep it refrigerated and frozen.

Islanders will have first dibs on the meat, which cannot be sold. The remainder will be offered to the Rhode Island Food Bank or other hunger programs.

Windham will charge $125 per deer, at a minimum of 200 deer, or $25,000.

Tefft said the first year is essentially a pilot project that, if proven effective, will have to be "ratcheted up island-wide" in coming years to be successful.

Long-term, however, it's not a solution.

"We will have to do a better job with our hunting program to maintain what we have," he said. "That's down the road."

As for using professional culling services elsewhere in the state to thin deer herds, Tefft said, "This is an expensive tool. It's logistically rigorous. It's not the answer everywhere. It's a unique situation."

rsalit@providencejournal.com

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