The White-Tailed Deer Problem in New Jersey
New Jersey’s Forests Are Being Eaten Alive
New Jersey’s Forests Are Being Eaten Alive
By Emile D. DeVito, Ph.D., Manager of Science & Stewardship — New Jersey Conservation Foundation
and Jay Kelly, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science — Raritan Valley Community College
White-tailed deer are a common sight in New Jersey. We see them wandering in our backyards; foraging in our gardens; dashing across our roadways. You can’t drive down most highways without spotting at least one deer lying on the side of the road — they are involved in more than 30,000 car collisions annually in New Jersey alone.
It isn’t supposed to be this way. Deer are shy, reclusive animals. They are meant to be rare, seen from a distance. Centuries ago, the region’s populations of wolves, cougars, and Native Americans kept the deer in check. About five to ten white-tailed deer per square mile is a normal, healthy number. But in some areas of New Jersey, the population of deer has swelled to twenty times that amount, or more. They have almost no natural predators, and the Garden State’s green landscape — its forests, farms, and gardens — is like a smorgasbord. These deer herds are eating New Jersey alive, and destroying its fragile ecosystems. Our future generations will look back and ask why we allowed this preventable situation to continue.
A stroll through most of New Jersey’s public forests provides irrefutable proof of how unbalanced our wooded regions have become. Invasive species, like Japanese stiltgrass and wineberry, run rampant. These non-native plants are invisible to our natural insects and pathogens, allowing them to thrive. Ground- and shrub-nesting birds have become a rare sight; there is no longer a forest understory in which to build their nests. Migratory birds once enjoyed abundant fruits from a diverse array of shrubs to help fuel their journey to warmer climates. In many areas, these native berry bushes now are completely wiped out. Not only do the overabundant deer herds chew native shrubs down to the root, but excess traffic from their hooves changes the soil structure and chemistry, further enabling alien species to flourish.
In the mid-nineties, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation installed small, fenced-in areas in Watchung Reservation in Union County, to allow these areas to recover. 25 years later, the difference is like night and day. Inside these experimental fences, the forest is lush and dimly lit. Native species that are well-adapted to low-light areas, such as maple leaf viburnum, are thriving in the naturally shaded understory. Within the deer fences, invasive plants are nowhere to be found.
The deer themselves suffer from this ecological imbalance as well. Rather than competing for mates and passing the strongest genes to the next generation, young bucks have their pick of too-abundant females, which are already fertile at less than a year old. Natural selection is out of alignment. At Duke Farms, a nature reserve in Somerset County, a science-based deer-reduction strategy was put in place. As a result, the deer in that region are now healthier and more robust. If these deer could speak, we believe they would thank Duke Farms’ stewards for their foresight.
But individual preserves and municipalities should not be left to their own devices to solve this widespread problem. We need a plan for the entire state, now, before it is too late. A domino effect is at work. The destruction of our forests by an out-of-balance population of white-tailed deer is chipping away at New Jersey’s landscape. It is contributing to the erosion of streams and the siltation of river channels. It is decimating generations of young tree growth, threatening the future of the forests themselves. And it is causing our native birds and plants to vanish.
None of this is new, or surprising. We have been saying this for decades. No more research is needed; no more analysis. That work has been done, and the results are conclusive: we have a crisis on our hands. We call upon New Jersey’s elected officials to enact a science-based, statewide strategy to get our deer population under control, and allow the Garden State to heal.