NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — Twenty years ago, five deer were set free on Block Island in an environment with plenty of food and no predators. They were fruitful and multiplied.
Today, many island residents would just as soon see the deer thrown out of their paradise.
Islanders blame the deer for destroying their gardens, spreading disease and even interfering with airplanes at Block Island State Airport.
For the first time, Rhode Island is considering a one-week open hunting season to thin the herd of 500 or more.
But the plan by the Department of Environmental Management has run into opposition from animal lovers and longtime residents loathe to permit gun-toting mainlanders to roam the island.
The New Shoreham Town Council has final say on the plan, which could reach the local board in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, many islanders are putting up fences, some supplied free by the group Friends of Animals.
The deer were originally brought to Block Island, 14 miles off the south coast of Rhode Island, so that residents could have a hunting season, said Jay Cronan, chief of the fish and wildlife division in the state Department of Environmental Management.
New Shoreham politicians overruled the objections of wildlife experts who warned that the deer would breed rapidly in the sheltered environment of Block Island, Cronan said.
"I was a deputy at the time, and I felt very, very strongly that we were asking for it," Cronan said.
The objections of other island residents led to cancellation of the hunting season that first year, but the deer remained, munching on garden vegetables and shrubs and becoming more numerous every year.
Every resident, it seems, has a deer story these days.
"I have three that come out every night," said First Warden Edith L. Blane, whose position is like that of a mayor. "They eat my hydrangea bush every night."
Barbara Burak has been struggling to grow trees on her property for 10 years, but the deer eat the leaves off young saplings.
"You have to fence everything--absolutely everything," Burak said. "I planted maybe 200 trees. I have to net and fence every one of them. It takes me a couple of months."
Islanders have tried more exotic ways of keeping deer away from their land, such as spreading wolf scent on the edges of their property, Burak said.
"We have tried everything. We have done everything that the Friends of Animals recommended," she said. "In the end, when they get hungry enough, they are going to eat whatever they can, no matter what it smells like."
Friends of Animals offered free electric fences, valued at several hundred dollars each, to landowners who agreed not to shoot deer or to allow deer to be shot on their property.
Deer have caused more than cosmetic damage.
At the island's airport, two or three planes a year collide with deer on the runway at night. Airport employees said they must drive around the field in trucks to chase off deer when a plane is expected.
No one has been reported hurt in the accidents yet, but three years ago a plane sustained $50,000 damage.
"You don't know when they're going to bolt on you," the craft's pilot, Charles Taylor, said of the deer. "You can make your approach and touch down and one of them will bolt right across the runway in front of you."
The state plans to fence in half the airfield this year, the other half next year, said Eugene A. Tansey, state director of airports.
A few deer are killed each year by car and airplane accidents, and dogs kill a few more, said game warden Arthur Rose.
The only other thing keeping the population under control is a "significant" amount of poaching, Cronan said.
"If it wasn't significant, you couldn't walk out there without stepping on a deer," he said. "The rest of them aren't jumping off a cliff and swimming to Charlestown, that's for sure."
Very few poachers are caught, because many islanders don't regard it as a crime.
"They caught a guy (who) shot a couple that were eating his shrubs up," said Rose, 65, a lifelong Block Islander. "He admitted it. He wasn't a poacher."
For several years, the state has issued hunting permits to people who can show the deer have significantly damaged their gardens. Seventy deer a year are taken with permits, but wildlife officials complain that's only half enough to control the herd's population. Animal lovers say too many deer are being taken.
The idea of an open hunting season has prompted numerous objections, even from people who complain about the deer.
Burak noted that the island's experience with mainlanders who come to shoot pheasants has not been pleasant.
"They don't know where they are or what houses are occupied," she said.