Thursday, May 07, 2009

CONFENCE SUMMARY - Suburban Deer Hunts Most Effective Management Tool

When it comes to controlling the damage caused by deer in suburban areas, controlled hunts have proven to be one of the most effective ways of restoring the ecological balance to the region's forests, according to wildlife officials.

Last week, federal, state and county officials, along with a host of university researchers, gathered for the annual Northeast Fish & Wildlife Conference in Lancaster, Pa.

While the two-day conference dealt with a multitude of problems , from the mystery fungus killing bats throughout the northeast to grassland restoration to aid the Regal Fritillary butterfly, there were several presentations dealing with the region's deer problems.

It was 15 years ago that Union County became the first county in the state to apply for a special permit to allow for the culling of the deer herd in the Watchung Reservation. With no natural predators, the growing number of deer were devouring the understory, the smaller shrubs and plants that provide shelter and food for smaller species.

Since that first Watchung hunt, similar approaches have been adopted by communities and counties across the state, with the South Mountain Reservation in neighboring Essex County one of the latest to bring in marksmen to reduce the deer herd. In recent years, Summit and Scotch Plains have also had cullings.

In 1994, the first year of the hunt in the Watchung Reservation, counts indicated a population of at least 96 deer per square mile, more than triple the amount the 2,065-acre preserve could sustain, said Daniel Bernier, who heads the county's Division of Park Planning and Environmental Services. Bernier, together with Susan Predl, a biologist with the N.J. Bureau of Wildlife Management, outlined the progress of the hunt at the Lancaster conference.

Bernier said that by the 1980s, it was clear that the growing deer herd was taking its toll on the reservation. Residents from the five communities surrounding the reservation were becoming increasingly frustrated by the mounting destruction to their residential landscaping, along with concerns for Lyme disease.

Since the culling began, 1,289 deer have been removed, which has enabled the forest floor to begin to rejuvenate, Bernier said.

"We're seeing plants return that we haven't seen in quite awhile--but it's slow," he said.

The hunt provides anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of venison annually for the needy, with the hunters allowed to keep 20 pounds for themselves. The cost of the hunt has also been dramatically reduced, from $55,000 in the first year, to a cost now of $3,000. The number of marksmen has also been trimmed from over 90 to now about 11 in the woods at any one time.

Bernier told wildlife officials that the hunt is conducted under strict rules that hold all participants to a high degree of accountability. "We account for every shot, every hit, every miss," he said.

Predl said that every deer that is taken is examined, with data recorded for continual review.

While the argument has been made that hunts cause deer populations to increase because the surviving deer have less competition, Predl said an analysis of the Watchung data shows that is not the case.

Without a deer hunt, even conservative projections indicate the reservation would now be home to nearly 1,400 deer, Predl said. The most recent count determined that there are now about 77 deer in the reservation.

Also discussing the region's deer problems was Dr. Gino D'Angelo, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services branch. D'Angelo oversaw a deer hunt in a section of Bucks County, Pa., just across the Delaware River northwest of Lambertville.

When deer grow overabundant, the entire ecosystem suffers, including the deer, he said, stressing there was no quick fix.

"It's no longer once and (we're) done," D'Angelo said. When the herds are left unchecked, "they're like a time bomb," he said.

The Bucks County hunts have led to a 15 percent reduction in deer-motor vehicle collisions and an increase in production at area farms by 18 percent, he said. Complaints from residents have dropped and the area's forests are showing signs of regeneration.

The recent protests by neighboring Essex County residents over the deer culling in the South Mountain Reservation was reminiscent of what Union County experienced when the Watchung hunts began, said County Manager George Devanney. But given the damage the deer were causing, residents came to accept the necessity of the hunt, he said.

"The county understands the emotional aspects of the deer culling," Devanney said. "But we have thrown the reservation's ecosystem out of balance and unless we reintroduce the deer's natural predators, like wolves, there is no other way to keep the deer population in check--and I don't think anyone is suggesting we do that."

New Jersey's deer population hit an all-time high in the mid-to-late '90s, said Carol Kandoth, who heads the state Department of Environmental Protection's Deer Project.

"Hunting is the most cost-effective and efficient method of control for any species," Kandoth said. "We had trap and transfer, but there is no place within the state to move them and most other states don't want them. And when you do move them, a third die anyway."

The original predators of deer were mountain lions and wolves and both species were eradicated several hundred years ago. In California, where they have allowed the cougar to remain, people have been killed and mauled, she said.

"When you inhabit the space that an animal normally inhabits, then you are responsible for managing the space that animal inhabits," Kandoth said.


No comments: