Mixed reaction as population recovers from virus

Love ’em or hate ’em, deer are making a comeback in the Highlands, and across the state.

Just ask Patrick Shields, who like most Philipstown residents, used to see deer all the time until about 2020, when a deadly virus spread through the population. Shields says he hadn’t seen a deer around his home on Grandview Terrace in Cold Spring or in the village’s open spaces for three years, until last month.

“I saw two walking near my yard,” said Shields. “I like having them around.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said recently that its monitoring indicates the population in Putnam, Dutchess and other Hudson Valley counties is recovering from epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which is transmitted by bites from midges and kills deer within days. Over time, the deer build resistance, allowing the population to slowly recover.

The DEC estimates the size of the population by the number of bucks killed by hunters. In Putnam County, that figure dropped from 231 in 2019 to 177 two years later before rising to 204 in 2022.

In Dutchess, the virus outbreak occurred in 2021, a year after Putnam. “Time will tell, but we are seeing an increase in the adult male take there, as well,” said Brendan Quirion, the DEC’s big-game biologist.

At the same time, the DEC is trying to prevent a return of the population to levels before the outbreak, because the herd in 2019 was larger than the capacity of the forests to maintain it. When there are too many deer, their browsing destroys so many shrubs and plants that it depletes the habitat for other wildlife and creates a foothold for invasive species.

Too many deer also aggravate homeowners. In DEC surveys conducted in 2018, 2019 and 2020, before the viral outbreak, most Putnam and Dutchess homeowners said they wanted to see fewer deer, not more.

The DEC is hoping by 2030 to trim the population by at least 25 percent from 2018 levels in Putnam, Dutchess and other counties. However, Quirion said, that could be a challenge, given that the animal is a prolific reproducer, akin to rabbits, and while the DEC asks hunters to shoot does to reduce the population, they prefer bucks with antlers. There also isn’t much hunting in counties such as Putnam.

As a last resort, the DEC could hire contractors to shoot does, Quirion said. In the meantime, “we have to encourage hunters to also take antlerless deer by educating them that it’s important for the health of the habitat.”

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Bielski, a former senior editor at Bloomberg News, is a freelance journalist who writes about the environment, clean energy, education, immigration and other topics.