An Essex County commissioner said that he supports a study on a possible “exit strategy” for the deer hunt, a headway for animal rights activists who have been fighting for the past decade for humane methods.
“Government has their hands in a lot of things,” said Leonard Luciano, county commissioner, at a deer population control committee last year. “I wish they didn’t have their hand in the management of wildlife. It just has become quite a controversial issue.”
Since the deer hunts began in 2008 — known snarkily by locals as the South Orange slaughter — there hasn’t been a consensus about whether the management technique would be lifelong or eventually phased out, as hunting advocates had originally promised.
Luciano’s openness to new research — which claims that deer have been unfairly scapegoated for the destruction of forests and the spread of Lyme — is timely as the county just announced a cancellation of the deer hunt for the second consecutive year. The hiatus, due to the pandemic, is a rare chance to see how local herds respond. But the county has yet to signal whether it will conduct another drone survey — the most accurate census method — nor grant access to the results of last year’s survey, despite several attempts by Jersey Digs for comment.
Activists have long argued that killing deer creates a “rebound effect” as less competition for food leads to better maternal health, and therefore more offspring. But their theories butt heads with the prevailing playbook cited by higher-ups in county government.
“An exit strategy isn’t viable in Essex County,” said Dan Bernier, director of Union County parks and a consultant for Essex County, who has long been vocal about his skepticism of non-lethal methods.
The only way to thin out the deer population to a range of 10 per square mile — the ideal range to ensure a healthy forest and limit car accidents, Berner said — is to hire marksmen. The current population of deer is 25 per square mile at South Mountain Reservation, 36 per square mile at Eagle Rock Reservation, and 107 per square mile at Hilltop Reservation, Bernier reported.
Nevertheless, one thing both sides can agree on is that drones are a breakthrough in wildlife management. These surveys, which the county first tested last year as a possible means to replace roadside and fixed-wing aircraft surveys, are the most accurate method to count deer. Not only can these flying machines access parts of the reservation inaccessible by cars, but they can also hover over an object to confirm whether an object is, in fact, a deer, and how many because deers often huddle for warmth.
Another significant advantage of the drones is that, because they move so quietly, they can extend the survey 300 meters outside the park into bordering neighborhoods. Residents who live near forested areas have become well acquainted with these fearless backyard visitors over the years.
“I live in Livingston and I even see deer on Livingston Avenue, which is a main thoroughfare and a county road,” said Patricia Sebold, county commissioner. “They’re in the streets. They’re all over the place.”