Since 1995, the white-tailed deer population has dropped by nearly 100,000 in areas where the state uses hunting as a management tool. But suburban areas remain off-limits to hunting, providing deer with the perfect habitat to thrive.
As a result, accidents involving deer and vehicles on state highways have increased 22 percent since 2005. Last year alone, contractors hired by Bergen and Passaic counties picked up 734 dead deer along county roads. State Farm Insurance estimated that there were nearly 31,000 deer-vehicle collisions throughout the state last year.
"They have not been able to reduce the deer populations in the suburbs, and as a result, the cars are taking them out," said Parker Space, owner of the Space Farms Zoo in Sussex, which has the contract to remove dead deer from Passaic County roads.
In the summer months, his crews might remove only a few dead deer each day, but by November, during the deer mating season, they pick up as many as 25 a day.
Deer have eaten away plants in many of North Jersey's forested areas, from the Greenbrook Sanctuary in Tenafly to the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood to Garret Mountain in Woodland Park.
"We're in a situation where our suburbs are overrun with deer. We need drastic action," said Carole Stanko, deer projects leader with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Logistics and the enchantment among some suburban residents with backyard deer make controlled hunts in North Jersey a hard sell.
Sandy Bonardi, Greenbrook Sanctuary's naturalist and director, stood last week on a sanctuary trail and pointed out that in a healthy forest, a hiker might be able to see only a few feet off the trail because of low-growth plants, wildflowers, shrubs and tree saplings. On this trail, nothing obscured the view.
Deer management - and controlled hunts in particular - "are a very hard sell," said Bonardi. "But what will be left if we don't do something? What's going on in our forests is tragic."
Grazing deer have also destroyed efforts at the 150-acre Flat Rock Brook Nature Center to remove invasive plant species and reintroduce native species, wasting time and money, said Ryan Hasko, the center's land manager.
Garret Mountain has also endured severe damage because of hungry deer.
"A lot of plants have disappeared," said Pete Both, an environmentalist with Friends of Garret Mountain. "The food supply gets scarce, and it affects all wildlife. When it affects the whole ecosystem, you've got to do something."
Naturalists at various sites have observed declines in more than a dozen bird species because of loss of habitat. Lost vegetation also leads to soil erosion, and more deer means a greater chance for the spread of Lyme disease through the deer tick, experts say.
"Deer are beautiful animals, but the damage they are causing to the understory of our forests is unbelievable," Bonardi said. "We are losing our woodlands. The effects are widespread and devastating."
In the early 20th century, the state's deer population was small and scattered, a result of habitat loss and hunting. Deer were so scarce that sightings were often reported in the newspaper.
But they rebounded, in part because their natural predators - bobcats, wolves and mountain lions - disappeared. The suburbanization of New Jersey has also helped deer thrive because the suburbs provide nutritious plants for deer to dine on, said John F. Organ, a wildlife conservation expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There are many ornamentals that provide a lot of energy, and the deer can cherry-pick the best stuff," he said. That's why they always seem to eat your rosebuds.
Deer are more suited to suburban landscapes than deep forests.
"They're an edge species, preferring areas where open space and woodlands meet, and in the suburbs we're creating more habitat for them all the time," Stanko said.
To address the growth of the deer population over the years, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has lengthened the hunting season, increased bag limits and offered incentives for hunters to kill more deer.
"New Jersey has some of the most liberal hunting laws in the country," Stanko said.
Those measures have little impact in the North Jersey suburbs, where hunting generally remains off-limits. In Passaic County, 578 deer were bagged by hunters and 100 were killed in Bergen County in the 2011-12 season, a far cry from the more than 8,000 hunters took in Hunterdon County.
Deer hunting is allowed on some state-managed lands in Passaic County, including Ramapo Mountain State Forest and Ringwood State Park, and Newark allows some hunting with special permits on its watershed lands in Passaic. In Bergen, any bagged deer most likely are hunted on private property.
"Hunting is not as well accepted in Bergen as in western Jersey, which has more of a hunting tradition," Stanko said.
In 1995, the state created a community-based deer management program, which lets municipalities seek permits for various deer management techniques, including controlled hunting, use of sharpshooters, capture and removal, and fertility control. No towns in Bergen or Passaic are taking advantage of the program, Stanko said.
Neither Bergen nor Passaic is considering controlled deer hunts or other control measures in their parks, officials say. Early in 2010, a deer hunt on Garret Mountain was suspended by Passaic freeholders after public criticism, and questions were raised about how the hunt was handled by the United Bow Hunters of New Jersey. In that hunt, 52 deer were bagged.
Officials at the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center have discussed population control options with the state Department of Environmental Protection. A legal hunt within the preserve would "likely prove incredibly problematic," Hasko said, but one possibility would be to bait and trap deer, then use a bolt gun to kill them.
The venison could then be donated to a local food bank. If the preserve ever felt it needed to control the deer population, Hasko said, this option "may be the most promising and safe."
Others say hunting is not the only answer.
"There needs to be a holistic approach to managing our lands," said Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter. He said people need to be educated about plants that deer don't eat, like evergreens and bayberry - and to plant them in suburban settings.
Some also suggest deer fencing. At the Greenbrook Sanctuary, a deer exclusion - a fenced area to keep deer out - shows promising signs of understory regrowth. The enclosure now has chestnut oak and white ash saplings, along with low-bush blueberry and maple leaf viburnum.
"It's working," Bonardi said. "But is that how we want to experience nature - all fenced in?"
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