By Jaimie Julia Winters
This year’s Essex County deer culling program resulted in high numbers with 99 identified at Hilltop Reservation and 101 at South Mountain Reservation.
The program was held over 12 days, between Jan. 15 and March 5. A total of 100 unborn deer were also removed, according to the county’s report.
In 2018 after a five-day hunt, 87 deer were culled at South Mountain and 52 at Hilltop. Seventy-three unborn deer were removed.
In 2017, 48 were killed at South Mountain and 57 killed at Hilltop.
South Mountain Reservation is located in Maplewood, Millburn and West Orange, and Hilltop Reservation is in Cedar Grove, North Caldwell and Verona. The program has not been held in Eagle Rock Reservation since 2012 when 23 were removed.
“Each year, we have updated our program to address current conditions, reducing the number of days and transitioning into a ‘maintenance mode’ to maintain the population at a manageable level,” said Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. in a release.
A spotlight count is conducted at Hilltop, South Mountain and Eagle Rock in May of each year following the county-wide deer hunt. It is held one night of the year and covers at most 50 percent of the parks, and therefore is only an estimate of the true number of deer, warn wildlife management experts.
Last year, the number of deer counted at Hilltop and South Mountain in the annual spotlight count showed an incline, while Eagle Rock saw a decline according to records obtained by Montclair Local.
A healthy number of deer is 20 per square mile, according to wildlife management experts.
Last 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 both years.
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.
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.
In Montclair’s six square miles, the 20-per-an-acre rule equates to about 120 deer.
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.
The Montclair Environmental Commission has researched 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 Montclair Environmental Commission members last September 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.
Research conducted in Madison where GonaCon vaccine was used reveals a 67 percent efficacy rate, according to Fish and Wildlife data.
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. In Montclair, that would be impossible, according to Theresa Trapp, treasurer and restorationist at Hilltop Conservancy.
According to the county’s 2017 Deer Management Report, the cost of the hunt runs about $500 per a deer.
Since 2008, a total of 2,670 deer (1,682 deer and 988 unborn deer) have been removed utilizing the services of experienced and qualified marksmen who volunteer their time. They are licensed by the State of New Jersey and have demonstrated their marksmanship ability and completed an orientation program with the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs and the Essex County Sheriff’s Office. When in the reservations, the agents station themselves in trees at least 20 feet above the ground and only take shots at a downward angle.
To maximize safety, South Mountain Reservation and Hilltop Reservation were closed to the public on the days the programs were held.
In addition to culling the deer herd, an aggressive replanting program to accelerate the regrowth of the forests is being undertaken in the reservations. Forty-seven enclosures (42 in South Mountain and five in Eagle Rock) have been installed where native vegetation species have been planted so their seeds can be reintroduced into the area. Eight-foot high fences have been installed and are designed to prevent deer from foraging on the planted areas.
Through a pilot program with the NJ Department of Transportation, Essex County received grant money to install detection devices that reflect motor vehicle headlights and emit a high-pitched noise to scare deer away from the road when cars approach. The reflectors are installed along Cherry Lane, Brookside Drive, JFK Parkway and Parsonage Hill Road in Millburn, Livingston and West Orange.