Beware: Hunting in Progress

Hither Hills State Park in Montauk is one of the larger areas in East Hampton Town that are open to deer hunting this month. Doug Kuntz

If local fields, back roads, and woods seem populated with hunters or the echo of gunshots more than usual right now, it’s not your imagination. Deer hunting season began Sunday in Suffolk County and runs through Jan. 31, joining small-game hunting and waterfowl hunting on the calendar, and renewing the annual push-pull between hunters pursuing an age-old pastime and residents concerned about safety.

“It’s often a very sensitive subject,” said Terry O’Riordan, director of the East Hampton Sportsman’s Alliance. “People have their opinions about hunting, period. And some people are uncomfortable with people hunting on their property as well. It’s getting harder and harder to hunt on properties that aren’t public land.”

Still, both Mr. O’Riordan and Harvey Bennett, a hunting and fishing guide who operates the Tackle Shop in Amagansett, independently stressed that there are state laws in place that are meant to help everyone coexist. The regulations can be found on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, though getting the answer to every question sometimes requires patience and a labyrinthine search.

One example: A Montauk resident who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from hunters said she felt put off when she called East Hampton Town police office recently to complain that “armed men in fatigues” were walking down her street. She said she felt it was “lunacy” that it was happening in her residential neighborhood, but she didn’t know her rights and felt she was treated like, “Yeah, so?” by the staffer who took her complaint.

But state rules actually don’t forbid hunters from walking down even residential roads as long as their gun is not loaded.

The regulations do specify that hunters may not discharge their guns within 500 feet of a structure, and bowhunters must leave at least 150 feet. The word “structure” is meant to be liberally interpreted as anything from a shed to a camper, a house or barn — anywhere where people could be inside.

“The exception to the distance rule is if the hunters are shooting over open water, any structure has to be at least 10 feet behind them — and a lot of nonhunters don’t know that, either,” Mr. Bennett said. “The way the state law reads, you can literally go duck hunting now in, say, the Georgica Pond bottomland, which is owned by the trustees. But the surrounding land is probably owned by some of the richest people on earth. As long as the hunters are shooting in that direction toward the water, you can shoot all day long. So yeah, to see hunters or hear gunshots so nearby can be intimidating, I’ll give people that. I understand why people get rattled.”

“It’s possible if you’re a homeowner there you’re going to freak out when someone wakes you up at 5 in the morning shooting at ducks and, at the same time, that hunter doing the shooting will be perfectly within his rights.”

Hunters should know that licensed hunting on private land over 10 acres is forbidden without written permission from the property owner.

Hunters are not permitted to discharge rifles anywhere on Long Island. But they are permitted to use shotguns with single-slug ammunition or muzzle-loaded guns and pistols. Bow hunting is also permitted, but using a crossbow is not.

Because of the need to manage the deer herd in particular, there are rules and special permits issued around that as well. The D.E.C. issues “nuisance” permits to landowners and towns for places such as East Hampton Airport, where hunting is allowed 365 days a year to hopefully keep the runways free of deer and prevent plane accidents.

The D.E.C. also manages how many individual hunting permits are issued for each region of the state, as well as how many bucks or does can be legally taken by each hunter. “Out here, people say we’re overpopulated by deer because the area of browse available to them is cut down so much by deer fencing and so on, and the deer are compressed into such small areas it can have a catastrophic effect on the woods where they feed,” Mr. O’Riordan said. 

As a result, the D.E.C. is currently allowing hunters here to take more than one antlerless deer, since most antlerless deer are females that re-stock the herd. The caveat? The hunter must tag the deer, take it to a D.E.C.-approved site to be checked, then go to the town office to obtain another antlerless deer permit before he can shoot another.

Taken all together, Mr. Bennett said, “It’s a lot to keep straight.”

The D.E.C.’s website has a list of state and town-managed lands in Suffolk County where hunting is allowed. Lotteries for hunting permits on D.E.C.-or town-managed lands were held in December, and hunters who received those permits have to make reservations once they receive a drawing number via the mail.

Some jurisdictions, like the Town of Southampton, also require hunters to get a town permit, but the Towns of East Hampton and Shelter Island do not. The East Hampton Town Hunting Guide, found on the town’s website, ehamptonny.gov, provides a comprehensive list of rules, helpful phone numbers, and maps of lands available to hunt. Some of the larger spots are located at Hither Woods in Montauk, Sammy’s Beach Preserve in East Hampton, and portions of Maidstone Park in Springs and Fresh Pond Park in Amagansett.