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Audubon Society labels deer a threat and pushes for hunt
Monday, March 14, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

For the first time in its 108-year history, the New Jersey Audubon Society is taking a stand on hunting and will ask the state to reduce the population of white-tailed deer.

In a special report to be released today, the bird-watching group says white-tailed deer have become an ecological "stressor" for birds and other wildlife by eating away the natural landscape. Hunting, the report says, is a viable option to bring the deer population down to a manageable number that doesn't eat through thousands of acres of forest underbrush.

The group is also considering opening some of its own preserves to hunters.

"I can't look at myself in the mirror anymore," said Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship of New Jersey Audubon. "As stewards of the forest, we have to do something to stop this disaster."

In advocating deer hunting, New Jersey Audubon is breaking its silence on the issue.

"It's good to see Audubon coming out on this issue because we all see that the deer are causing a major problem for other forms of wildlife," said George Howard, a biologist and former director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which monitors wildlife populations and hunting. Howard is now the conservation director for the New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.

The Audubon Society is calling on state wildlife authorities to revamp deer management strategies, and claims hunting policies are geared too much toward keeping enough deer around for sports hunters rather than seriously reducing the state's herd of nearly 200,000 white-tail.

The report also concluded deer management methods such as fencing and birth control have very limited impact, and that the state's entire ecology is at stake.

"We are not demonizing deer. Humans created the perfect habitat for deer, with no checks in New Jersey except for your car bumper," Stiles said.

LOSS OF SPECIESIn the report, the Audubon Society underscores the voracious foraging habits of the white-tail. For decades, deer have munched away at New Jersey's plant life, leaving other creatures that depend upon it to disappear.

"We have lost 14 bird species alone," Stiles said.

One place that has been ravaged by deer is the Audubon's 3,000-acre Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuary in Somerset and Morris counties.

Rick Radis, an environmental consultant and naturalist, said he led botanical walks there for 30 years, and especially loved the early spring, when some 30 species of wildflowers and some 20 species of ferns bloomed in the forest. But he has stopped leading the walks.

"Over the years, it got harder and harder to find anything out there," said Radis, who lives in Rockaway. "The deer ate everything -- the wood anemone, the dwarf ginseng. The ground used to be carpeted with trout lilies and other flowers. They're just gone now. It's sad."

In the report, titled "Forest Health and Ecological Integrity -- Stressors and Solutions," the group also criticizes massive overdevelopment as a major problem for all wildlife.

ECOLOGICAL CRISIS"An analysis of landscape change conducted by Rutgers University has indicated that in about 40 years, New Jersey will become the first state to reach build-out. Clearly this is the most imminent threat to natural habitats in New Jersey," the report stated.

However, the Audubon Society contends, even if all remaining open space were protected today, native plants, birds and other wildlife still face an ecological crisis because of the foraging white-tail and the invasion of foreign plant species.

As the deer eat away native plants, the ground is being reclaimed by more resilient Asian and European plant species like Japanese stilt gr [no swearing please] and purple loosestrife, which the deer do not eat. In turn, native insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals are affected.

"These forest systems in the Highlands of North Jersey and some in Central Jersey are in a state of collapse," Stiles said. "This is ecological Ground Zero."

Other environmental groups have also begun to take aim at deer.

"It is our obligation to do something about it, to deal with the deer. White-tailed deer are a threat to our conservation areas," said Mike Van Clef, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy in New Jersey.

His organization will open its 14 North Jersey preserves, totaling some 5,000 acres, to deer hunting this fall.

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