UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Union County Department of Parks and Recreation has concluded its annual Deer Management Program, which ran from the beginning of January through February 12. The program, which was supervised by Union County police and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, operated in six county parks and one municipal park, including Watchung Reservation, the Summit portion of Passaic River Park, Ash Brook Reservation, Lenape Park, Nomahegan Park, Oak Ridge Park and the Hawk Rise Sanctuary.
According to the department, browsing for food by large numbers of deer has caused a loss of forest vegetation in park areas throughout the northeastern United States, with overpopulation of deer threatening the survival of plant and animal communities vital to the ecology of these parks.
An analysis completed by the County in 2011 showed that roads bordering Lenape and Nomahegan Parks had some of the highest numbers of deer-car collisions in the County.
Forty marksmen were chosen by the county from among experienced, licensed hunters — 85 percent of whom had previously participated in the county’s program — and all serving on a voluntary basis. The hunters, clad in orange hats and vests, hunted the deer from elevated positions — approximately 20 feet up in the trees — over baited sites.
Dan Bernier, Director of Park Planning and Environmental Services for the Department of Parks and supervisor of the deer hunt, said that Union County was the first entity to obtain a Community Based Deer Management Permit, in 1995. The county continued to obtain permits for its deer management program until 2012.
Since 2013, however, the county has continued to operate in the same manner under its own authority and not under the auspices of the program.“The community-based program allows for deer management activities to be conducted outside of the regular hunting season and eliminates restrictions on the number of deer that can be harvested or their sex,” said Bernier, who claims that deer overpopulation is a serious issue in the county.
“Overpopulation of deer results in loss of biodiversity in our parks, destruction of residential landscaping, an increase in deer-related motor-vehicle accidents, and fear of being in your yard or the public outdoor spaces due to the possibility of Lyme disease,” he said.
But according to Angi Metlar of the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, programs such as this actually exacerbate the problem of overpopulation.
“Hunting destabilizes the population,” said Metlar. “When you start killing them, they start fleeing and that’s how they end up in suburban neighborhoods. Why didn’t we have this problem in the ’70s and ’80s?”
Metlar said that the program actually increases reproduction within the deer population. “Reproduction is actually caused by the very program they use to abate it,” said Metlar. “In a nutshell, hunting does not work. We’ve done studies. The fact is that deer reproduction is dependent on the food supply. It’s called artificial abundance. You kill off half the deer. Now there is twice the food to go around. Now they have more room to spread out and they reproduce more. If you hunt deer, they actually reproduce more. Does are not stupid. When they are hunted they expand their range by 36 percent.”
Metlar asserts that baiting deer causes disease, brings animals who leave fecal deposits around bait piles, kills ground-nesting birds and other wildlife, and attracts bears. In addition, it adds to the problem of overpopulation. “Baiting increases the population,” said Metlar. “It increases the deer population by providing food.”
Bernier said that although there has been a negative reaction to the program by some residents and animal rights groups, it is based on misconceptions. “As with all issues, there is a small percentage of people who are opposed to lethal removal of deer,” said Bernier.
“Their opposition comes from either a perception that hunting is inhumane for the deer, or is unsafe in public spaces or near their homes. The Union County program is highly regulated and addresses those concerns. Union County has been a leader in New Jersey for two decades in the field of deer management. County staff are well versed in programs that have explored alternatives to hunting. To date, there is no alternate method available that would reduce the population of deer in a practical effective, or affordable manner.”
But Metlar disagrees. “It’s easy for me to say I don’t want deer harmed or killed, but there are alternatives,” said Metlar. “There are solutions. Stop all feeding, baiting, and clear-cutting. We have control over this. We can educate people not to feed deer.”
Larry Hajna, of the NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife, said that the deer management programs are essential in addressing deer-related issues like vehicle collisions. “The program is important because there is an impact,” said Hajna. “People are hitting deer and they have been killed by these strikes. Whether you agree with hunting or not, you have to understand that the population must be controlled. Without hunting, deer would be exploding all over the place.”
Hajna said that the issue of deer management in the state is particularly challenging. “We have a big challenge in New Jersey,” said Hajna, who claims that the state has a liberal hunting season and allows for deer hunting practically year-round. “There is such an interface between wildlife and people. I’ve heard stories of people’s lawns thick with deer.
They come in, feed off the bushes and come into the yard. Community-based programs are really important. It allows municipalities to help reduce the herd. It’s better for the deer in the long run.”
Hajna asserts that administered contraceptives are not a viable option. “It’s not really viable because deer would have to be captured, then the contraceptive has to be administered, and we’d have to do this more than once,” said Hajna.
Dan Roberts, also of the DFW, said that hunting is the only method that has proved effective. “It’s the only method that has proven, over time, in reducing the population quickly,” said Roberts. “There have been other options discussed, but those have been shut down. Using immuno-contraceptives is cost-prohibitive and the deer would die anyway of capture myopathy,” he said, referring to capture-induced stress in deer.behind hunting programs. “We recommend surgical sterilization. Darts are better than bullets, but the towns just want the deer gone. They don’t want to listen to solutions,” said Metlar. “Deer are considered a cash crop. The DFW is backed by hunter cash. They always say that surgical sterilization is too expensive or that the deer will die anyway, but it’s not true.
There are non-lethal solutions, and we have solutions for anything you throw at us.”
Metlar said that the opposition of the DFW toward non-lethal methods of deer control is to be expected. “I would not expect anything else from them,” said Metlar. “They are all about giving financial support to hunters. The hunters are afraid that if we start implementing non-lethal methods, their revenues will go down.”
Metlar said that the issue of vehicular collisions with deer is greatly exaggerated. “We asked cops in Saddle River about deer collisions,” Metlar said. “Those account for about 20 percent of accidents. That means that 80 percent of accidents are caused by things other than deer.”
Metlar states that the Department of Transportation has recommended increased lighting and signage, which would go a long way in preventing deer collisions.
Sebastian D’Elia, Director of Communications for Union County, said that the county had received many complaints about deer prior to the starting date of the program, but that there are some residents opposed to the hunting program. “Obviously we get complaints from some residents,” said D’Elia. “But we get lots of complaints about deer in people’s yards, as well as car accidents. There is some necessity to this. This is a reality. We have reasons we do it. Public safety is our number one issue. Our efforts are pretty successful.”
Metlar said that putting an end to the hunting in parks would help stabilize the deer population and keep them from fleeing into residential neighborhoods. “We try to instill in the public that we should allow deer to have their homes in the park,” said Metlar. “Let’s bring them back. It’s frustrating. I love deer. They are individuals, there are family dynamics. I love our natural habitat. Deer are keystone herbivores. They’ve been in New Jersey for 3 and 1/2 million years. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.”
While Roberts said that hunters have the option to keep the deer they kill, many of the dead deer are donated to food banks — which are processed at state-approved butchers — with most community-based programs taking part in venison donations.
Although parks remained open during the program, patrons were urged to stay on the marked hiking, walking and bridle trails.
Approximately 41,000 deer were killed statewide during the 2015-2016 the hunting season, according to the DFW, with 150 killed in Union County.
For more information about the Community-Based Deer Management Program visit www.ucnj.org.