By Jaimie Julia Winters
The Montclair Environmental Commission is tackling residents’ complaints of an increase of deer grazing in their backyards.
A healthy number of deer is 20 per square mile, according to wildlife management experts. In Montclair’s six square miles that equates to about 120 deer.
But given that 50 percent of the town is covered in asphalt, sidewalk, homes and buildings, not woodlands, no wonder deer are encroaching on our backyards and streets, experts say.
The number of deer counted in the annual county spotlight count in May at Hilltop Conservancy in Verona and South Mountain in West Orange has steadily climbed this year, while Eagle Rock in West Orange has seen a decline according to the most recent deer count. But the spotlight count, conducted in May each year following the county-wide deer hunt, during one night of the year and covering at most 50 percent of the parks, is only an estimate of the true number of deer, warned wildlife management experts.
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Counts have been conducted in Hilltop and South Mountain following the annual deer hunts since 2008, and in Eagle Rock where hunting was done from 2010 to 2012 when the county estimated the number of deer population was low enough to not justify the manpower and cost of culling there. The last hunt at Eagle Rock resulted in 23 deer.
This year’s count at Hilltop was 45, up from 17 in 2017. South Mountain’s count was 53, up 23 percent from last year’s count. Eagle Rock count was at three this year and last. A complicated equation used by the county to estimate the deer numbers has South Mountain at 151, Hilltop at 90 and Eagle Rock at 12.
South Mountain Conservancy President Dennis Percher, who was the recorder for May’s spotlight count, said although the numbers are down from a decade ago, spotlight counts don’t reflect the true number of deer. He said the number of deer can be better extrapolated from hunt numbers.
In 2018 after a five-day hunt, 87 deer were culled at South Mountain and 52 at Hilltop. In 2017, 48 were killed at South Mountain and 57 killed at Hilltop. According to the county’s 2017 Deer Management Report, the cost of the hunt was $44,579 or about $500 per a deer.
Given the 20 deer-per-square-mile calculation, South Mountain should have 60 deer in its three square miles, Hilltop’s half-square-mile should host 10 deer, and Eagle Rock’s 0.7-square mile area should have about 12.
“When the colonists arrived, there were about five or seven deer per a square mile,” and a lot more foraging land, said Percher.
Why the numbers
Suburbia is the perfect breeding grounds for deer, according to Theresa Trapp, treasurer and restorationist at Hilltop Conservancy.
“There’s no predators — cougars, bears or wolves — like there used to be. There’s only cars and an occasional dog. And there’s food, lots of it,” said Trapp. “With a doe having three to four fawns a year, the population would double in size in three to four years with no wildlife management. For decades, this over-populous species has been stripping the forest understory and consuming the next generation of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers, thereby reducing the forest’s ability to support the many other wildlife species that call our reservations home.”
That’s when the deer come off the preserve to dine on residents’ lush backyards.
“Residents of Montclair are likely just recently noticing the impacts of deer within their town borders — damage to landscaping, feces on lawns, etc. — but the problem has actually been building for some time,” Trapp said. “The surrounding towns of Verona, Cedar Grove and West Orange have not been controlling their resident deer herds, and those deer have been eating and reproducing unmolested for many years. As a deer herd can double in size in less than four years, what might have been a small town-based herd of 40 deer when the county started its sharpshooting program, could now contain more than 100 deer. And with no large predators and a plentiful suburban food supply, those numbers will continue to increase and spill out into adjacent towns.”
Although Montclair was unable to provide Montclair Local with the number of deer complaints over the last two years, the Montclair Environmental Commission contends the numbers are on the rise. The town did provide the number of carcass retrievals to date this year, nine, and last year’s total, 24.
“Deer have completely destroyed what was once a huge selling point for our home, a beautifully-maintained front-yard flower garden,” one resident wrote in a letter. “Every year it has gotten worse. I now see herds of deer every day, and I am nowhere near the reserve.”
Worries over deer motor vehicle accidents, Lyme disease and habitat destruction have many towns struggling with how to control the encroachment of deer.
Hunt or vaccinate?
The environmental commission has formed a Deer Team to look into birth control methods such as the PZP (porcine zona pellucida) immunocontraception vaccine. The Humane Society of the United States recommends it as a safe and effective method to control fertility in adult female deer. PZP can be delivered to adult female deer by hand or remotely using darts shot from a dart gun and prevents females from having fawns for up to three years.
Deer management expert Doris Lin, vice president of legal affairs for the Animal Protection League of New Jersey, spoke to commission members Sept. 12 about deer management challenges, techniques and best practices for residents and municipalities.
According to Lin, who advocates for non-lethal alternatives to wildlife management, the costs for non-lethal alternatives range from $2,778 for a vasectomy for males, and $1,200 for PZP and $600 for GonaCon for female vaccines.
“In general, fertility controls have not proven all that effective because they do have to be re-administered periodically, meaning the deer have to be trapped,” said Lawrence Hajna, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “It can be expensive, as well.”
The use of fertility control chemicals and vaccines on deer in New Jersey requires a special permit, and the use of tranquilizing darts on deer requires that no structures be within 2,000 feet, Trapp said.
Research conducted in Madison where GonaCon vaccine was used reveals a 67 percent efficacy rate, according to Fish and Wildlife data. Another study by the Morris County Park Commission included darting 10 female deer with PZP. Frequent movements of the deer in and out of the Arboretum made subsequent booster vaccinations difficult, and the study was abandoned, according to the state.
After years of attempting a non-lethal deer management plan in Saddle River, the state rejected its plan to capture and inoculate deer earlier in the year. Now the town is asking the state to approve it joining the hunt.
Trapp suggested that Montclair first get a reliable count to determine the numbers and locations of the deer.
“This would be a terrific topic for crowd-sourced sightings from residents using a street map database-based application,” she said. “Also, the NJDEP has wildlife biologists who will come out to assist with a deer count, but that would be a single data point as opposed to history over time.”
She said that once the count has been conducted, the town can explore solutions such as a non-lethal population control option, being aware that those options will require year-over-year investments by the town.
“If it is a problem, and it’s primarily located near the county reservations of Eagle Rock and Mills, one solution would be for the town to request and publicly support the county extending its sharpshooting program to those reservations,” she said. “But per the county’s spotlight counts, there aren’t enough deer inside the Eagle Rock boundaries to justify renewing the program there. But the numbers in and around Mills could.”