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The Hunter Games
Harry Hurt III | Photo: Kenneth Havgaard/Aurora/Getty Images and Kevin Russ/Stocksy United LTD | October 24, 2013
Hunting waterfowl and deer isn’t just a thrilling sport with a revered history—it’s also a practice that actually helps the environment of our Long Island towns.
Tom Brennan’s favorite hunting story is about not pulling the trigger. Early one lucent fall morning, the 57-year-old marine mechanic was invited to stalk game in the woodlands surrounding The Bridge golf course in Bridgehampton. As he shouldered the .410 gauge shotgun he’s been using since his first childhood outings on the East End, Brennan spied a flock of wild turkeys and half a dozen deer, all potential targets he was legally licensed to shoot.
But instead of firing his shotgun, he lowered the barrel and simply watched the turkeys and the deer gambol through the trees.
“Hunting is not about the killing part, as far as I’m concerned,” Brennan says, quickly adding that he always eats whatever game he does bag and/or donates the harvest to organizations that feed the hungry. “I just love being outdoors, enjoying the weather and the scenery, and looking at the different types of birds and animals.”
Brennan personifies the ethos of most East End hunting enthusiasts. Contrary to persistent stereotypes, the majority of shotgunners and archers are not Elmer J. Fudd cartoon characters looking to slaughter “wabbits” and every other helpless creature who crosses their sights. They’re naturalists and sportsmen—yes, hunting is still a predominantly male pursuit—like hedge fund billionaire Louis Bacon and blue-collar residents like Brennan who love the outdoors in general and wildlife in particular.
Brennan and his wife, JoRae, are co-heads of the East Hampton chapter of Ducks Unlimited, a national organization founded in 1937 that has conserved more than 12 million acres of wildlife habitats in the U.S. and Canada. Last month, the couple hosted the chapter’s 18th annual Sponsor Print dinner, where hunting and nature prints by local artists were sold to raise funds for wetlands preservation. Bacon, who hosts 19th century-style expeditions in tweed knickers for fellow Wall Streeters and celebrity guests like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has granted conservation easements to the Nature Conservancy on close to 1,000 acres encompassing his properties on Robins Island and Cow’s Neck peninsula in Southampton.
As local hunters can attest, eastern Long Island is nestled amid a major migratory waterfowl flyway historically abundant with deer, and it has a uniquely illustrious and controversial hunting legacy. The area’s original Native American inhabitants hunted for sustenance. Ditto the earliest European settlers. The barons of the Gilded Age treated hunting as an elitist pastime. But with the advent of the housing boom in the 20th century, the wildlife population and their habitats were steadily overcome by seasonal residents who joined animal rights activists in demanding increasingly strict regulations on hunting. Many local hunters began to feel more endangered than their quarry—and still do. (Citing fears of provoking opponents, Bacon and the proprietor of a popular Sag Harbor shooting establishment declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Ironically, the anti-hunting tide now shows signs of turning, because the proliferation of wildlife has become a major nuisance to property owners. Over the past two decades, the combined year-round-resident and migratory geese population on Long Island has boomed from a few thousand to more than 60,000, according to Craig Kessler, a former regional director of Ducks Unlimited. In the 2.7 square mile area of North Haven alone there are an estimated 200 deer; in addition to authorizing bow and arrow deer hunts every fall, village officials say they may hire professional sharpshooters to cull the herd this winter.
“When people first move out here from the city during the summer, they think the geese and deer are beautiful—until they see the geese pooping on and eating their lawns and the deer eating plants they paid $10,000 for,” says Tom Cornicelli, a veteran hunting guide based on the North Fork. “But the geese and deer populations have to be thinned, not just to protect property but to keep them healthy.”
Despite avowedly well-intentioned animal control and conservation measures, Brennan, like most of his fellow East End hunters, fears for the future of his sport because of the continuing encroachment of the area’s human population. “It’s not going to get any better,” he says. “The biggest problem is the housing. When you put up a house on a piece of land out here, no one can hunt there anymore.”
And finally, full disclosure: I am a resident of Sag Harbor who’s hunted ducks, geese and pheasants locally for more than 20 years. Like the Brennans, Bacon, Kessler, Cornicelli, North Haven Village officials and the other hunters I know, I’m convinced of the overriding importance of thinning flocks of waterfowl and herds of deer, both for their own sake and for the sake of public safety and property preservation. I encourage you to hunt if you enjoy wildlife and the outdoors, but I also urge you to hunt safely and responsibly, and to share whatever you kill and don’t eat yourself with people in need.