Deer Management and Environmental Stewardship

Deer Culling in our Reservations:  A First Step toward Environmental Stewardship
Dennis Percher, Chair, Board of Trustees, South Mountain Conservancy
October 2012

On October 16th, the Essex County Freeholders approved the Parks Department’s request for a permit to cull white-tailed deer in two reservations early in 2013.  A vote on the actual program is forthcoming, but they and the County administration now – after five years and over a million dollars of investment–seem to be wavering and abdicating their responsibility for saving the forests.

The South Mountain and Hilltop Conservancies believe this program to reduce the excessive population of deer must be continued in all three forested reservations so their fragile ecology can be restored.  Our elected officials must stop waffling year after year and consciously embrace environmental stewardship.

Environmental stewardship is a concept championed more than 60 years ago by Aldo Leopold.  He recognized the negative impact man had had on the environment and that in the remaining natural areas the urgent need for individual responsibility and action, within economic constraints, “to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”  He wrote of an emerging “land ethic” to ensure its health through the “capacity of the land for self-renewal.”

More recently, in this year’s Hopewell Valley Community Stewardship Plan which is primarily concerned with the problem of over-abundant deer, Mackow and Van Clef write: “…proponents of stewardship proceed from the viewpoint that human activities directly and indirectly shape the remainder of our natural world and that there is an obligation to intervene to promote ecological health and avoid further losses to biodiversity.”

We have shaped our forests in many ways.  After clear cutting most of the South Mountain Reservation 150 years ago to feed the pulp mills, the parks fashioned in our suburban environment from the regrowth forests paid little attention to biotic communities, irreversibly fragmenting our remaining natural areas.  Second, we removed the predators – think cougars and bears – that kept deer populations in check.  Finally, we introduced a cornucopia of supplementary food in our backyards with especially lush plants in the early spring when the does give birth.

As a result of these actions, the deer population is now far out of balance.  Historically, before the arrival of Europeans, New Jersey had around 70,000 deer, an environmentally sustainable 8-11 per square mile, or one deer per 64 acres.   In the past several decades — after near extinction a century ago due to unregulated hunting — their numbers rebounded to reach over 200,000 in 1995.  Through deer management in the last several years, these numbers have been reduced to half that total count, but our reservations still average more than four times the recommended number to allow regeneration, for self-renewal.   Deer browsing continues to strip the forests of their ground-level understory, eradicating the saplings needed to replace aging trees.  Without this vegetation, the forest’s layered ecological system – a food chain starting with grasses and bushes, insects, and birds, and topped by small predators – has largely disappeared.  Culling over the last few years, we are happy to report, has allowed a few, scattered wild plants to emerge.  Most of the forest floor, however, still resembles a stark moonscape — if invasive thorn bushes or stilt grass have not taken hold.   And those few wild plants will disappear if we do not continue to act, to take our responsibilities as stewards seriously.

We must reduce this one dominant species, deer, so that an entire ecosystem can survive.  Unfortunately, in our large, open, unbounded tracts of land, non-lethal methods cannot work.  Connecticut’s Fairfield County Deer Management Alliance (http://deeralliance.com/node/108) summarizing these methods states that: “no contraceptive vaccine for wildlife has been approved” by the FDA, research “attempts have failed on free-ranging herds” and Even if birth control where available today, this method of deer herd management only stops the growth of the herd, it does not reduce the overpopulation that already exists.” 

Immuno-contraception (using a drug like the recently approved GonaCon) requires does being tracked down, tranquilized using high-powered dart guns (that require evacuating a park), followed until fully sedated, and then administered the dose by hand.  If this were not daunting, the same does need to be found again for booster shots in years 2, 5, and 8.  After all this, GonaCon is only 90 percent effective, so the unaffected deer — which average 1.75 fawns per birth — almost replace the herd.  Finally, the cost is around $1,000 per treated deer.   As for trapping and releasing deer, Fairfield’s website concludes that even if taxpayers were to pay up to $3,000 per animal, “there no longer remain suitable places for deer to be released.” In short, the only effective, safe, and economical method is the controlled hunting in place in our Reservations modeled after the program used for 15 years in Union’s Watchung Reservation.

To support this ongoing to culling, please sign our petition at www.Change.org, Tell Joe DiVincenzo: Continue Deer Culling in Essex County Reservations.  Search for deer culling.  The South Mountain and Hilltop Conservancy have garnered over 700 signatures – people with different e-mails.  We need 1,000 names to make it clear that Essex County residents cherish their reservations and take their responsibilities for stewardship seriously.  Take a minute. Tell your friends.  Send a message to save our forest ecosystem.

In our large reservations, the remaining natural spaces that account for nearly half of the County’s parkland, we need to re-establish balanced, complex ecological communities.  Our forests and future residents demand this of us.  Given the unnatural forces we have set in play, these lands will never reestablish this balance without our help.  We must intervene and reduce the number of deer each year:  without controlled hunting the population can double in three years putting at risk the reservations as we know them and the millions of dollars already spent on forest regeneration, deer management, and infrastructure.  Without being active stewards, all communities will lose.