The White-Tailed Deer Problem in New Jersey
Hunting in New Jersey
Recreational hunting has played a longstanding role in the history and culture of New Jersey, and when allowed under tight controls and permits, hunting is a crucial component of deer management. A report by Larry S. Katz, Ph.D. of the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences states that lethal strategies, which include hunting, are the most cost-effective means to reduce deer densities.
In considering hunting as a tool for deer population management, the ongoing dialogue about hunting in New Jersey must take various factors into account, including the number of acres made available for hunting, depredation permits granted to landowners, time allotment for deer hunting season, and bag limitations. It is worth noting that the number of hunters in New Jersey has decreased dramatically. According to an NJ.com article, citing data from the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, 240,522 hunting licenses were issued in 1975, but only 146,152 licenses were issued in 2015. This significant decline is among several reasons why our deer population has reached such unhealthy proportions. The Mercer County Park Commission has recently implemented its second-annual deer management plan to manage deer populations, which incorporates hunting.
In a paper titled “A Private Lands Approach to Controlling New Jersey’s Deer Population”, Rutgers University Extension Wildlife Specialist David Drake states that some areas of New Jersey are experiencing 10 times the expected density of white-tailed deer, and he illustrates the overwhelmingly negative impact of personal property, health, and ecological damage caused by deer overpopulation. He proposes a program to increase lease-and-fee hunting on private lands in the state, citing potential benefits that include a reduction of the deer population and resulting damage, as well as improved overall wildlife management.
Scientists have extensively evaluated hunting as a tool for the management of unsustainable deer populations. The paper “Evaluation of Organized Hunting as a Management Technique for Overabundant White-Tailed Deer in Suburban Landscapes,” which appeared in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, outlines in scientific detail the dangers posed by deer overpopulation, including the direct correlation between the abundance of white-tailed deer and black-legged ticks, as well as the significant threat to plant diversity and forest regeneration. The authors concluded that “the only way to efficiently reduce deer abundance is through the removal of deer from a local population.” The paper’s authors include the individual responsible for a successful deer management program at New Jersey’s Duke Farms, which until 2004 had an unsustainable population of more than 300 deer per square mile. The successful, incident-free deer management program, which incorporated hunting, resulted in rapid recovery of the forest landscape and seedbank. More than 15 tons of venison were donated to community food banks as part of the program.
Numerous communities have identified creative ways to incorporate hunting into their deer population management programs, while also teaching residents about conservation and sustainability. In Warrensburg, New York, the Field to Fork Program has been established to introduce people to hunting while providing them with an option to source their own protein. And in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation reported that hunters donated nearly 350,000 pounds of venison to community food banks this past season. And right here in New Jersey, Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH) was established to enable hunters to donate venison to community food banks while helping to address the deer overpopulation problem. According to statistics from the New Jersey Department of Fish & Wildlife, in the 2018/2019 season, 785 deer were donated to this program. This amounted to 28,606 pounds of venison, or more than 114,000 meals. Since the program’s inception in 1997, hunters have donated more than 243 tons of venison to food banks. During the 2019/2020 season, the program hit a milestone of more than two million meals provided since HHH was founded.
Pennsylvania is yet another state where hunting is recognized as an important, science-based management technique for controlling deer populations, as noted in these columns in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life.
A public opinion poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University, with support from the NJ Farm Bureau, revealed that more than a third of adults surveyed regard the white-tailed deer population as a “very serious” problem, an increase of 8 percent from nearly a year ago. About half of those surveyed said that they would support additional hunting, beyond baseline levels, to control the New Jersey deer population if wildlife scientists conclude that deer are exceeding their recommended habitat limits.
Those who oppose hunting as a solution to the deer overpopulation problem often point to other methods to decrease the deer density. Unfortunately, many of these methods have proven to be ineffective. A Cornell University study, titled “Integrated Approach for Managing White-Tailed Deer in Suburban Environments,” based on a real-world deer management program, evaluated various options for deer control. The study, which stated that “Deer management must be based on clearly articulated outcomes, sound science and informed policy decisions,” concluded that some form of lethal deer-management solution, which included hunting, was needed to reduce deer populations in an acceptable time frame. The study’s authors further concluded that “fertility control alone will not likely be successful in areas with high deer densities.”
In areas where recreational hunting is not considered a viable tool to manage deer populations, several management methods are employed within the New Jersey Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Community-Based Deer Management Permit program (CBDMP). In reviewing options and eventual legislation to reduce the density of New Jersey’s unsustainable deer population, hunting deserves careful consideration among the available methods of control.
For more information on white-tailed deer hunting in New Jersey, visit the NJDEP Division of Fish & Wildlife Deer Hunting website.
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Human Health Effects
The New Jersey Farm Bureau, and the agricultural interests we represent, understand that people will have different ideas about the approach to this problem. But ultimately, we must identify immediate and viable solutions to mitigate the negative impact to agriculture, the environment, and human health caused by deer overpopulation.