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Hunters kill 85 deer in Morris
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff
More than 1,000 deer have been killed by hunters in Morris County's parks in the past nine years, since the county Park Commission decided to cull an overpopulation of the white-tailed creatures it said were ravaging forests and destroying plant and animal habitats.

The count this year was 85, mostly does, in a hunting season at 10 county park properties that ended last month, said county officials.

The result has been a slight easing of forest damage, say naturalists and biologists. But deer numbers are still too high to allow anything more than minimal improvement in the forest. Continued hunting combined with an aggressive reforestation effort are needed, they said.

The damage remains particularly severe in Lewis Morris County Park in Morris, Mendham and Harding townships, where officials said the deer hunt trimmed the herd enough to allow glimpses of hope for the forest.

"There are more wildflowers now. But it was so bad, the understory was gone," said Rob Jennings, superintendent of natural resources management for the commission. "Between what the deer did and the invasive species that filled the void, it was in terrible shape. The forest is going to need a push, an assist to battle that combination."

To better assess the situation, the commission has approved aerial deer surveys this month for Lewis Morris, Fosterfields Living Historical Farm and other sites in the Washington Valley section of Morris and Mendham townships, plus Loantaka Brook Reservation in Morris, Harding and Chatham townships.

The goal is to find out how many deer are in the parks, where they are concentrated and assess the best location for future hunts.

"It should give us some data on how we've done with our deer management program," said Charles Zafonte, commission director of horticulture and natural resources. He said the last aerial surveys were done in the mid-1990s.

Emile DeVito, manager of science and stewardship for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said deer and development are the top enemies of the state's natural areas. He said deer are turning some of Morris County's forests into a different habitat. They have changed the climate of the forest floor, rendering it inhospitable to moisture-loving ferns and mosses, native insects and micro-organisms that are the foundation of the woodland food chain, he said.

The New Jersey Audubon Society also documented forest damage. Troy Ettel, director of conservation, said his group's Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary in Morris and Somerset counties has a lack of saplings and wildflowers and young trees and older shrubs. Many birds, such as Kentucky warblers and wood thrushes, are missing.

"We've lost the lower and middle layers of the forest to the deer," said Ettel. "We've created a perfect environment for them with fragmentation of natural areas. They love the nice lawns and plantings of the suburbs. And they have no natural predators here -- only hunters and car bumpers."

The society, which has remained neutral on deer hunting for 108 years, is now adding hunting to its roster of remedies for the state's forests, saying the population of white-tailed deer must be reduced.

A combination of hunting, animal birth control, education and nonlethal measures was recommended to deal with deer overpopulation in a report released to the Park Commission in 1990. The commission studied experimental birth control serums, but found them ineffective on large, free-roaming herds. Trapping deer was rejected as costly and difficult, especially to find places to release them.

The commission first allowed hunting at Black River Park in Chester Township in 1991. In 1996-97, despite opposition from anti-hunting forces, the hunt was expanded to Lewis Morris. This winter, hunters killed 85 deer, mostly at Lewis Morris and Chester Township sites. It was one of the lowest yields since the hunt expanded nine years ago.

"I'm concerned we are not getting enough hunters for the program," said David Helmer, executive director of the Park Commission, who plans to reassess how the hunt is conducted.

Helmer said the commission's need to balance public access to the parks with hunting, keeping hunters away, for example, on weekends, reduces the potential yield.

Hunt opponents say the county is wasting its time and energy. They contend changes caused by hunting are short-term and counterproductive. Gender, age or number of deer killed is immaterial, unless deer are completely eliminated, said wildlife advocate Susan Russell.

"Deer are density-dependent, meaning they reproduce at a faster rate when they are killed," said Russell. "In nature, deer go through phases, reproducing at a faster rate when numbers are low, eventually reaching a plateau when competition for food and cover is high. Hunting has never, and will never, reduce reproductive rate."

But without continued hunting, said DeVito, some of the region's forests will become permanent victims.

"You can't maintain biodiversity unless you put up a fence and keep the deer out." said DeVito, who has done just that at the Watchung Reservation in Union County. "Deer are destroying all of the important things that help make up a healthy forest," he said. "Even common birds are losing places to nest."

DeVito said scientific evidence shows forests retain their health only with deer populations of 20 or fewer per square mile. Aerial surveys done in the mid-1990s by the state Division of Fish & Wildlife showed there were about 45 deer for each square mile in Lewis Morris Park.

County officials say they are anxious to see the new numbers this year.

Lawrence Ragonese can be reached at [email protected] or (973) 539-7910.
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