By Kitty Merrill
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How'd they do it? Last month during a hearing on East Hampton Town's proposed deer management plan, part time resident Christine Ganitsch described a successful program implemented by a New Jersey community.
This week, The Independent offers a look at the Bernards Township plan and results garnered from a program that began with the convening of a deer task force in 1999.
A formal deer management program began in the township, a 24.5 square mile municipality located in central New Jersey, in 2001, according to officials' 2011 report to the Centers for Disease Control. Governed by a five person township committee, Bernards suffered many of the same problems related to the white tailed deer as East Hampton has – deer/vehicle accidents, increased cases of Lyme Disease, loss of residential landscaping and the woodland understory.
"We had an epidemic of deer-related collisions. You were afraid to drive at night," Committeeman John Carpenter, liaison to the Bernards Township Deer Task Force, recalled.
After two years of community dialog, the township committee (a body comparable to East Hampton's town board) decided to initiate a formal deer management program. A culling program was authorized for the 2001-2002 hunting season.
With many other New Jersey municipalities reporting deer problems similar to Bernards,' state lawmakers enacted legislation permitting "more intense activity than regular sport hunting," according to the report. Once a municipality adopted a formal plan, and it received approval from the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, increased hunting on public property was allowed. In Bernards the submission of a plan led to an extension of the hunting season from mid February through the end of March.
The first year of the program, the township hired professional hunters who used shotguns. "Their results were limited, but expensive, and we never used them again," the report states. A private organization of volunteer archery hunters had more success and has been part of the program for 10 years. A second group of volunteers came on board in 2003. They use archery equipment, shotguns and muzzleloaders.
Described in the report as "proficient and committed hunters," they are qualified every two years with tests administered by local police. Over the decade, there were no reported incidents of injury to members of the public or their pets. Working from tree stands, hunters target deer at bait sites.
"We have highly expert hunters," Carpenter said. Culling is implemented "in an unobtrusive and sensitive way. We do it respectfully."
Although Bernards commissioned six aerial surveys to determine the deer population, only two were considered reliable, the report notes. They were conducted at night and used infrared photography. Carpenter said grants from the CDC helped cover the cost of the aerial surveys.
The survey established a reference population estimate of 2170 deer, some 89 per square mile in 2002. By 2011, the number had been cut 48 percent, to 46 deer per square mile. Over half the kills reported in 2011 were implemented using archery equipment. The harvest that year was equivalent to 38 percent of the total population.
Since 2001, township officials have tracked deer killed in auto collisions. Over nine years, from 2002 to 2011, the deer population dropped to 52 percent of the original reference estimate, and road kills decreased apace, dropping 50 percent over the study period. With a rough estimate of the average cost to repair a car after a collision in which a deer is killed at $2500, the report concludes an average of $460,000 in avoided costs each year.
The relationship between deer and the tick that is a major vector for Lyme Disease has been a subject of protracted discussion at recent town board meetings in East Hampton. The Bernards report notes that lower deer density didn't yet show a downward trend in tick nymphs surveyed at sites in the township. "With no apparent change in tick density, we did not expect to see a change in cases of Lyme Disease," the report states. "However, the data for Bernards do show a decline in Lyme cases during our program."
Because the Lyme Disease pattern was less clear than that of road kills officials sought data from neighboring townships. Although their cases declined, too, (without an aggressive culling program in place) the decline in Bernards was sharper compared to neighbors.
At the start of the program, the loss of woodland understory was high on the list of concerns. A survey of a 425-acre wooded tract by a local environmental expert revealed the appearance of early spring flowers and oak and maple saplings as tall as two feet. "A few years ago all seedlings were regularly browsed to the ground," the report states.
"We have a solid program," Carpenter concluded. "We go about it methodically and in concert with state Fish & Wildlife." He said he doubts the program costs more than $7000 per year, most of which goes to buying bait, with hunters receiving small stipends for ammunition and license expenses; they are not paid for their time. "Tons" of deer meat is donated to local food pantries, Carpenter reported.
Opponents to culling have suggested the use of sterilization or contraceptive programs to reduce deer populations. Carpenter said, "It was considered at one point, but deemed too expensive and difficult to employ."