GUNFIRE IN THE SUNKEN FOREST: Fire Island National Seashore Deer Culling Begins

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“Safety is our top priority during this operation.” An unmanned police tape barrier in the Sunken Forest on Thursday, March 5 at 3:30 p.m. (Photo by Warren Boyd Wexler)

Within the past 24 hours, Fire Island has been transformed into a killing field, as the sound of gunfire disrupts the tranquility that is the norm this time of year. Reports started coming in of rangers stopping driving permit holding residents at the Fire Island Lighthouse checkpoint station on Thursday night, March 4 at approximately 10:30 p.m. Motorists were halted for roughly a half hour at this location before being allowed to proceed east down Burma Road.

“They were shooting just inside the gate at the checkpoint and stopped the cars until they were done shooting” stated Lonelyville resident Karen Moran, who was at the scene. “There were many of us, and 10:30 p.m. is a busy time of night, people run errands at night, a lot of our children are in after school programs… I have no idea if we are safe or not safe, we were not informed of anything around this. I’m feeling vulnerable right now, for myself as well as my children.”

Moran’s account corresponds with that of Marija Beqaj of Saltaire at the same time:

“They started [culling] just west of Kismet, no doubt about it,” said Beqaj. “Christine Helbig and Marsha Hunter both heard the shots. There are no posted signs. This is just as crazy as it was in 1989.”

Marija Beqaj alludes to the experimental hunt 31 years ago, a Fire Island National Seashore (FINS)/ New York State Department of Conservation joint project. That hunt took place during daytime hours and Fire Island residents turned activists did everything they could to interfere with it – including banging pots and pans to scare deer away from the hunters. Indeed, protest conduct was deemed disorderly enough that that law enforcement made arrests – but as most of those arrested were housewives with no criminal record this was an embarrassment for the state and federal agencies, and the hunt was cancelled after only six days.

This time it’s a different ballgame. FINS sharpshooting agents are working under the cover of darkness… or at least most of it, because another account was reported the next day.

“I am in the Sunken Forest and have heard at least a half dozen shots!” said Cherry Grove resident Warren Boyd Wexler on a cellphone at 3:30 p.m. “I was just out taking advantage of the nice weather this afternoon. Next thing I know there is yellow police tape blocking the boardwalk I used to come in, and it wasn’t there 45 minutes ago. Deer are bolting in all directions in terror.”

Wexler’s account is disturbing on many levels. Yes, he was clearly shaken by that experience, but also according to our February 29 Special Report, hunting, culling and other lethal animal harvest is prohibited in the Sunken Forest due to restrictive covenants that are part of the original deeds when the primeval maritime forest was deeded to the National Park Service in 1966. The Sunken Forest tracts are presently a matter of ongoing litigation filed jointly by Animal Welfare Institute and Wildlife Preserves, Inc. against FINS in 2017.

While FINS administrative offices are by and large a Monday through Friday nine to five operation, they made the uncommon move of issuing their official press release on the subject as of Sunday, March 1, one day after our Special Report was published and well circulated on social media.

““Safety is our top priority during this operation,’ said [Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Alexcy] Romero.” Reads the highly crafted press release. “‘The Seashore has contracted with wildlife professionals to carry out the removal operations at the William Floyd Estate and on federal lands on Fire Island. These contractors are highly qualified firearm experts experienced in conducting wildlife reduction operations within lands adjacent to a suburban environment. Areas of the park will be closed when operations are underway for the safety of the public.’”

FINS maintains their own Facebook page, where they announced their “deer reduction operations” also on March 1, where the comment thread reads “Thank you for sharing your comments. While this is an open forum, it is also a family friendly one, so please keep your comments and posts clean, and be considerate of others opinions.”

On Wednesday, March 3 a FINS/FIA (Fire Island Association) issued a “clarification” statement via the Ocean Beach Association.

“NPS will be conducting deer reduction operations throughout our large federal tracts on Fire Island, but there will be no deer reduction operations in the smaller federal tracts of land in the western communities, including the areas between Kismet and Saltaire, Atlantique, and Robbins Rest. This limitation was always part of the plan internally, but was not communicated well to the public. We have a heightened awareness for safety during this operation, and we cannot stress that enough.”

The gunfire erupted the very next day. For those who live on Fire Island, they may as well have been gunshots heard round the world.

Editor’s Note: Mailing address for Fire Island National Seashore: 120 Laurel Street, Patchogue, NY 11772, Attn. Superintendent Alexcy Romero. Their telephone number is 631-687-4750.

Deer feeding on corn placed by rangers at the swale, just below Sunken Forest’s high overlook. This photo was taken by Wexler just before FINS officially announced the cull.

The same baiting location as witnessed by Wexler on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Shoshanna M.

Shoshanna M.

Shoshanna McCollum is editor of Fire Island News. Author of two books, and award-winning journalist for multiple Fire Island and South Shore Long Island publications since 2000, she resides year round on Fire Island with her husband and many cats.

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