The Conservancy supports continued deer population reduction in the Hilltop Reservation in order to restore ecological balance, and we believe that Essex County’s deer management program is the most cost-effective and responsible way to achieve that objective.
This is not a decision we make lightly – non-lethal methods such as immuno-contraceptives and surgical sterilization are very expensive and are ineffective in an unfenced environment like the Reservation (see Deer Control Methods Cost & Effectiveness Comparison). In addition, lethal methods better reflect (however imperfectly) the predator-prey relationship found in nature – where large predators like wolves and mountain lions would otherwise keep deer numbers in check and in balance with their habitat.
Neither is this decision controversial – at least not among biologists and professional wildlife managers. Rutgers University, NJ Audubon, the NJ Conservation Foundation, the NJ Chapter of the Wildlife Society and The Nature Conservancy all agree on the negative impacts of New Jersey’s deer overpopulation and on the need to reduce their numbers in order to preserve and restore ecological balance in our natural spaces. Unfortunately our suburbs provide the perfect environment for deer to thrive – a year-round food supply and no large predators – with serious negative impacts on forest health. See illustrative photos of browse-damaged and undamaged forest understories below.
Finally, Essex County’s program is not a recreational hunt, but rather a tightly-controlled sharpshooting program, conducted under the NJ DEP’s rules for a Community Based Deer Management Program. Experienced marksmen take aim within a small radius from baited tree stands using shotguns loaded with slugs – no high-powered rifles, no roaming about in the woods, no amateurs allowed. Resulting dressed venison is donated to the NJ Community Food Bank.
The results of the County’s program at the Hilltop have been eye-opening: 746 deer have been removed over the past 10 years. This equates to an average of more than 160 deer per square mile, an extraordinarily high deer density, and many times higher than the 20 per square mile that wildlife biologists and forest ecologists recommend for a healthy, balanced ecosystem where all wildlife — not just deer — can flourish. Decades of high deer numbers and browse damage have seriously degraded the Hilltop’s ability to regenerate, and it will take a generation of maintaining a reduced deer population for the Reservation’s ecosystem to recover (see recommendations in our Ecological Assessment).
There have been small signs of improvement since Essex County began its program in the Hilltop – more native shrub and tree seedlings are growing and surviving to maturity, and more songbirds are being observed. However, the County’s efforts must be continued into the foreseeable future. The Reservation’s 284 acres are surrounded by 10 square miles of suburban housing — Verona, Cedar Grove and North Caldwell — and those towns are currently doing nothing to control their own deer herds. This means deer numbers are only being reduced in 5% of that total area …. all while the deer already living in the surrounding 9.5 square miles are busy eating, reproducing and increasing in number …. with some eventually making their way back into the Reservation.