Sharpshooters target deer in N.J. hunt

January 29, 2008 10:48:05 AM PST
Sharpshooters took to the trees Tuesday in a northern New Jersey nature preserve that borders hundreds of homes to deal with a common problem in many of the state's suburban communities: too many deer.But in the most densely populated state in the nation, the prospect of hunters on the South Mountain Reservation has some residents worried and animal rights activists angry.

Still, officials and many other residents say the hunt is necessary to cull the white-tailed deer, which are destroying the forest, spreading Lyme disease and posing a hazard for drivers.

"There are clearly too many deer for this environment to handle," said Michael Jaffe, 65, who normally walks through the South Mountain Reservation with his dog Charlie.

On Tuesday morning, the two were forced to stroll the side streets bordering the scenic nature preserve because the reservation was closed for Essex County's first deer hunt.

The 10-day hunt will take place each Tuesday and Thursday through Feb. 28. At any one time, up to 12 specially trained hunters will be positioned in trees throughout the roughly 3-square-mile preserve, an oasis of woodlands, streams and trails.

The territory is surrounded by a sea of upscale, suburban towns where the architecture is a mix of colonials, Tudor-style, and Queen Anne-style houses and mansions situated on tree-filled lots - many of which have back yards looking into the reservation.

Essex County is the state's second most densely populated, according to 2000 census figures.

The hunters, who went out in the pre-dawn hours and were slated to come down between 8 and 9 a.m. before going out again in the late afternoon, were shooting from tree perches throughout the park.

The rules require them to set up a minimum of 450 feet from nearby homes and shoot downward to prevent dangerous stray bullets.

But those measures didn't make Sharon McClenton feel any safer. The 42-year-old, who was waiting for her pre-dawn bus to the New York City school where she teaches second grade, said she was worried because her West Orange house buts up against the preserve's border.

"I could come out on my deck and get shot," said McClenton, who also questioned whether the hunt was necessary. "I haven't seen an abundance of deer, quite honestly." The goal is to kill 150 deer, which county officials say not only strip the forest of vegetation but also spread Lyme disease and pose a hazard for drivers.

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., who has pushed for the hunt, said the preserve can sustain about 60 deer, but estimated 300-400 were living there.

"The residents of our county will hear shooting, and there is no reason to panic," he said. At least one gunshot could be heard Tuesday morning.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and leaders of the four municipalities around the reservation - Maplewood, Millburn, South Orange and West Orange - all signed off on the hunt.

Deer, which can rapidly reproduce, have been an issue in many New Jersey communities and other parts of the country where development has pushed out predators.

Seven municipalities applied for permits to cull deer during the 2007-08 season, under the DEP's Community-Based Deer Management Program, said DEP spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas. Municipalities can have a controlled hunt if they demonstrate that deer are damaging the environment or becoming a hazard.

Animal rights activists call the hunt barbaric, and say officials should explore other methods such as deer contraception to control the animals' numbers. Authorities used to trap the deer and then move them out of the preserve, DiVincenzo said, but many deer would die in transit and fewer places wanted to take the animals.

As for contraception, Bob McCoy, Chair of the Maplewood Environmental Advisory Committee, a group of citizens which advises the town on environmental issues, said there's no proven deer contraception. And until some form of birth control can be found, the hunt would become a regular - and necessary - occurrence.

"We have no illusion that it's going to be a short-term thing," McCoy said. "It's going to go on forever."