Dentistry and Deer Management: A Call for Effective Deer Culling

Dentistry and Deer Management:  A Call for Effective Deer Culling
Dennis Percher, Chair, Board of Trustees, South Mountain Conservancy
October, 2013

It is hard to understand what determines Essex County’s decisions on deer management.  The County conducts studies to count white-tailed deer and creates models to estimate future herd populations.  They invest over $1.6 million in forest regeneration sites at the South Mountain and Eagle Rock Reservations to create seed sources for native plant species.  They pay forest ecologists to study deer browsing rates… and, yes, there is improvement in our understory plants – the future forest. But much more needs to be done to restore healthy, thriving forests in our reservations.

The County pays for detailed reports and recommendations from Union County’s Watchung Reservation deer management guru, Dan Bernier.  In August, he reported that the 2013 Essex County hunt did not meet its goals and that “In a forest that is damaged by overbrowsing by deer, the density might need to be reduced to as low as 5 deer per square mile in order for forest regeneration to succeed [p.22].”  Our reservations are overbrowsed.  The County seems to know this. The County seems to understand that deer management is an ongoing challenge since left alone deer populations can double in three years, and that a low deer density over several years is necessary to give our forests a fighting chance to regenerate.  Yet, year after year they equivocate about the hunt and seem uncommitted until the last minute, and then set goals that fall short of what is needed, neglecting some reservations.

How can we understand this? Consider public support. The County asked last year for a show of public support for the deer culling.  In response, the South Mountain and Hilltop Conservancies sent County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Jr., a petition with the signatures of over 700 Essex County residents who support an annual hunt.  They signed because deer are flooding their backyards, because they know our forest are barely surviving, and because they want our forests to be around for their children…and not become a tangle of foreign, invasive thorn bushes.  We gave the County expert opinion: Controlling deer populations is supported by the NJ Audubon Society, the NJ Chapter of the Wildlife Society, the NJ Conservation Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy.  The County’s own Freeholder Deer Management Committee voted for the hunt as the only economical and feasible way to manage the deer.

Though the County seems to know all this, through some decision-making alchemy, the County Executive has apparently decided to do less this January and February than what is needed.  Joe DiVincenzo wants to hunt three afternoons each at South Mountain and Hilltop (less than the last hunt) in spite of not reaching last year’s goals, and the recommendations of the County’s own expert (for four afternoons), and the Conservancies (for five).  As for Eagle Rock, it will be neglected for a second year.

The County has decided to do less because, as the Park’s Department Director Dan Salvante explained in a meeting last week, “we don’t have to follow the recommendations.” Now, you would think that if you missed your goals and if experts recommended more days, you would increase your effort. (The South Mountain and Hilltop Reservations goals were to remove 115 and 80 deer; they got only 43 and 61 deer, respectively.)  You would think you would do more, not less, but this is not the logic of the County.

Consider if this logic were applied to dentistry.  “Yes, your teeth are somewhat better,” explains the County dentist.  “You have fewer cavities than last year, but we did not reach your goal of no cavities.  Nonetheless, why don’t you stop brushing a bit.  You’ll be okay.”  Unfortunately, for our forests, as these patients, this logic is not okay.

Part of the problem is how the County measures success.  Through some arcane calculus, the County focuses on the number of deer removed, instead of the deer that remain and their impact.  “Look,” they explained, “each year the number of deer culled is going down.”  Now, over time, we can expect the deer hunts to remove fewer deer each year as the herds are reduced.  At this point, however, most of this reduction is due to the fact that the County is hunting fewer days…obviously, if you hunt fewer days, you get fewer deer. (In South Mountain earlier this year, for example, the most deer were removed on the last afternoon of the hunt.  At Hilltop, where 61 deer were removed, the total there should only be around five!)

Besides poor measures, there is poor science and goal setting.  In spite of the prevailing recommendations of ecologists, the County continues to set goals based on the fictitious notion that 20 deer per square mile is good enough.  It isn’t.  Experts (including Dan Bernier ) routinely explain that 20 is the maximum carrying capacity of a healthy forest. Our forests are not healthy and using that goal we will not restore them in our lifetime.  For the forest to have a fighting chance to regenerate, the deer density needs to be below 10 per square mile and goals must be based on this lower number.  To set goals any higher is faulty science and undermines the millions of dollars spent to date on forest regeneration.

This mistaken goal has directly affected Eagle Rock Reservation.  The County has no plans to hunt there for a second year, because the deer density there is estimated to be (a questionable), 15 per square mile.  This is poor stewardship of the land and sets a terrible precedent for the other reservations.  This decision puts in jeopardy the over $700K public investment in regeneration sites at that park.  It is penny wise and pound foolish.  Experts point to the need for consistent, ongoing deer management, and again the County has decided not to listen.

The County touts their investment in new trails at Eagle Rock…but if the forest dies, who will want to walk there in the coming decades? The County has set up a good deer management program, but is not doing enough.  They fail to set scientifically-based goals, and listen to forest ecologists who recommend consistent, annual deer management.  They can and should expand the hunt this January and February and include all reservations.  The incremental cost for police overtime, bait, etc., for a single additional afternoon is less than $5K.  To do less does not make sense given the scale of other initiatives.  After all, McLoone’s Restaurant pays around $80K to use their site each year and the County spends millions for reservoir boating, tree top adventures, and trail reconstruction.  All of these are great attractions, and all draw upon a forested landscape to make them special.

Joe DiVincenzo, the County should not assume a partial effort is good enough.  It isn’t.  Ask your dentist.

A slightly edited version of this was published in the South Orange-Maplewood News-Record, Oct. 31, 2013