• Miles of uncrowded white sandy beaches extend to the horizon, separating the clear blue ocean and undulating grass-covered dunes.

    Fire Island

    National Seashore New York

Deer and Vegetation Research on Fire Island

Fire Island National Seashore has been involved in a number of vegetation and deer monitoring programs over the past 40+ years. During surveys of plants in the Sunken Forest in the late 1960s, no deer were reported. From studies conducted in preparation of the Seashore's draft master plan and 1978 general management plan (GMP), signs of deer browse were evident in the Sunken Forest and 46 deer were observed in an island-wide aerial census conducted in 1971. In 1974, Fire Island's deer herd was estimated at 50 individuals. By the early 1980s, deer abundance and their impacts on vegetation were beginning to be noticeable across the island, and by 1989, the deer population was close to 500. By the mid-1990s, deer had become very abundant within the Fire Island communities, and a deer fertility study was initiated on Fire Island.

In 2003 the deer population was estimated to be 500-700. From population density studies conducted over the past several years, it is estimated that 300-400 deer now live on Fire Island.

Deer and vegetation research will inform the development and implementation of a White-tailed Deer Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (Deer Plan/EIS). The Deer Plan/EIS will address issues associated with the number, distribution, and behavior of deer on Fire Island.

Deer Movement Study
Together with park staff, researchers from the State University of New York School of Environmental Science and Forestry have begun a White-tailed Deer Movement Study on Fire Island. In phases over the course of three years, researchers will fit 75 female deer with small, GPS-enabled radio-collars to track how the deer move about the island.

Bait stations will be used to draw deer within a safe distance for the remote delivery of an approved anesthetic. The animal will be under anesthesia during the entire time the collar is being fitted and placed around the deer's neck. While under anesthesia, researchers will continuously monitor the animal's vital signs (temperature, pulse, respiration) to make sure the animal is calm and doing well under anesthesia. In addition, researchers will draw blood and collect ticks for further analyses to obtain baseline information on the health of the deer in the study. A reversal agent will then be administered and the animal's recovery from sedation will be monitored.

The collars are designed to automatically release from the animals after about 10 months. This means it will not be necessary to handle the animals a second time. During the 10 month period, radio frequency transmitters affixed to the collars will allow technicians to monitor the health and safety of each collared animal once a week.

The information collected from the collared deer will complement existing vegetation and deer population monitoring efforts essential to the development and implementation of Fire Island National Seashore's Deer Plan/EIS.

For more information, please visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment website.

Vegetation Studies on Fire Island
Robert Cushman Murphy provided one of the earliest reports on the vegetation of Fire Island's Sunken Forest in his July-August 1933 article for Natural History Magazine, August on Fire Island Beach. In 1953, Oakleigh Thorne, II, provided additional documentation of vegetation in The Sunken Forest of Fire Island Beach, N.Y., his masters thesis for Yale University. Thorne documented the preservation and establishment of the Sunken Forest Preserve, which became a major component of Fire Island National Seashore when the park was established in 1964.

In 1967, the National Park Service established permanent vegetation plots in the Sunken Forest to measure long-term changes. These plots were resurveyed in 1986. In 2002, mapping and classification of park vegetation communities was conducted, and the Sunken Forest plots were resurveyed. The plots were studied again in 2011.

More than forty years of vegetation studies in Fire Island's Sunken Forest reveal an alarming reduction in the number of herbaceous plants and small trees in the understory of this rare maritime holly forest. Some scientists are concerned that the types of trees we see today like the old growth American holly, and sassafras, shadblow and black gum are not growing in the understory at densities high enough to support regeneration of the Sunken Forest.

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Sunken Forest understory vegetation, the low-growing wildflowers and seedlings that live under the canopy of the trees, in 1967 (left) and in 2002 (center). Herbivore exclosures (right) allow researchers to monitor seedling establishment in Fire Island's rare maritime holly forests. Impacts of browsing by white-tailed deer threaten the regeneration of old growth American holly trees in the Sunken Forest.

Deer Population Studies
In preparation of Fire Island National Seashore's 1978 general management plan, an island-wide aerial census was conducted in 1971, and 46 deer were observed. From 1983 to 1998, park staff conducted an aerial count of deer twice a year. In 1985, park staff initiated a study of deer home range, movements, physiological parameters and incidence of Lyme disease in ticks. By 1989, the deer population on Fire Island was estimated at 500 individuals.

By the mid-1990s, deer had become very abundant within the Fire Island communities. In 1995, U.S. Geological Survey scientists recommended distance sampling as a new ground-based method of estimating deer abundance. Initial distance sampling surveys within Fire Island communities estimated a density of 80 deer/km2. Other areas, both within Fire Island communities and other areas of the park, were added to the annual distance sampling survey effort by 1999, and continue today.

The following reports contain deer population data:


Deer Fertility Control Research on Fire Island: 1993-2009
In 1993, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) initiated a research project to determine whether remotely administered a porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine could be used as a practical and effective deer management tool on Fire Island. Fire Island National Seashore participated in this long-term deer fertility control project, working cooperatively with university scientists from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF), and several Fire Island communities and volunteers. A fall deer darting program continued from 1993 through 2009, with bait stations set up in September to lure deer into appropriate areas where female deer could be darted with PZP, which prevents does from becoming pregnant.

In February 2006, in order to study the efficacy of administering PZP at alternate times, the Seashore and HSUS initiated a winter deer-darting operation from Cornielle Estates to Sailors Haven. Winter darting was also conducted in 2007 and 2008.

While many people feel that the fertility control project was successful, this was only conducted as research and not as a component of an approved management plan. The results of this long-term fertility control study will be taken into consideration in the development of Fire Island National Seashore's Deer Management Plan/EIS.


Studies of Human-Deer Interactions: 2003 - 2007
Cornell University's Deer, People, and Parks reports:

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4-Poster Device

4-Poster Tick Management Technology Study on Fire Island: 2008-2011
In 2007, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and Cornell University initiated a 3-year 4-Poster Tick Management Technology Study on Fire Island to determine the efficacy and risks associated with applying low levels of pesticides to white-tailed deer to control the spread of ticks and the diseases they carry. Deer play an indirect role in the transmission of Lyme disease to people because they serve as a primary host to ticks. From 2008 - 11, two 4-Poster Tick stations were placed within two Fire Island communities. These stations, filled with corn, were used to study the effect of the pesticide, Permethrin, on tick abundance. In order to feed at a station, deer pass their head and neck through rollers that applied the pesticide. Regular tick "drags" were carried out in the immediate vicinity to monitor the number of ticks.

For more information on study results, please visit Cornell University's Wildlife Control Information website.


The results of these studies and reports will be taken into consideration in the development of Fire Island National Seashore's Deer Plan/EIS, which began in 2011.

Whenever possible, natural processes are relied upon to maintain native plant and animal species and influence natural fluctuations in populations of these species. The National Park Service may intervene when certain criteria are met. (2006 Management Policies, Chapter 4, Section 4.4.2).

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