Deer Population Could be in Crosshairs
Public comment being accepted on plans to restore historic forest, which some say means addressing the amount of white-tailed deer.
The National Park Service has a goal: to return native species to Jockey Hollow. And that could mean tackling a more controversial issue: what some experts say is an unsustainable white-tail dear population.
Wednesday, the service kicked off a three-year process to design a management plan for the Morristown National Historical Park.
A second public scoping session will be held Thursday in the auditorium of the Washington Headquarters Museum, 30 Washington Place, Morristown, from 2 to 4 p.m. Residents will have an opportunity to ask questions, discuss issues and suggest alternatives at the session.
Jockey Hollow, in Harding and Morris Township, is the site of the Continental Army’s encampments during the American Revolutionary War.
National Park Service biologist Robert Masson said the park has seen numerous changes in the forest over its history, but since the 1980s, increasing deer browse and the growth of invasive plant species has changed the forest to a point that “native shrubs and plants are declining and there is more non-native cover. This is a trend we hope to change.”
Masson said the goal is to bring back balance to the Jockey Hollow forest that produces “a natural forest with a variety of species of natural trees with dead trees.”
The proposed general approach to the vegetation management of the forest includes removal of invasive vegetative species either by physical removal or chemical means; increasing the amount of light that reaches the forest floor through selective tree removal; improving the soil; experimental native forest planting; fencing off areas to keep deer away from native vegetation; and use of deer repellants.
The proposed white-tail deer management plan calls for deer fencing in targeted areas; reproductive control by surgical or chemical means; hunting; and lethal reduction without hunting.
The resulting review would produce a plan to guide resource management for 15 to 20 years.
The plan is guided by the park service’s General Management Plan that calls for the National Service to manage Jockey Hollow to reflect an 18th century landscape of field, forest, orchard and clearings present during the Continental Army encampment, and to protect and foster a broader cultural and ecological context, rather than an exact replica of the encampment period. The goal is to regenerate a mixed hardwood forest that reflects the historic character, natural diversity and natural processes, the park service said.
At the center of the discussion is the white-tail deer herd. While the number of deer in Jockey Hollow has increased and decreased over time, the current population is 50 to 60 deer per square mile.
The Morris County Park Commission, which operates adjacent Lewis Morris County Park, began a deer hunt in that park in two decades ago.
David Helmer, the park commission executive director, said the concern is the loss of plant life in the parks.
The park commission has done studies over several years that show that overbrowsing by deer has contributed to the loss of native plants, which in turn has reduced the number of animal and bird species that inhabit or visit the parks.
A recent aerial county of deer in Lewis Morris found 58 deer per square mile, a new park commission park said. A manageable number is 15 to 20 deer per square mile, the report said.
Helmer said the park commission has used a variety of methods to control deer, including annual hunts, fences and immunocontraception. Building a fence around a park is an expensive proposition, he said, but at Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township, a fence was erected to protect the woods and exotic plants.
The recent park report on the deer management said that the park commission implemented a trial immunocontraception program at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in August 1997, in cooperation with the Humane Society of the United States. This program continued until early 2000. An evaluation of the results of this program found contraception to be an ineffective and inefficient means to control high numbers of deer.
Helmer said he also has concerns about how humane the contraception process is. Deer are captured, hooded, sedated, immunized, given drugs to come out of sedation and released.
Helmer wondered what the impact on all that trapping would be on the individual deer, and if the contraception was effective, whether it might impact the herd’s ability to raise enough young deer to continue the herd.
Harriet Grose of Morris Township said she “can see Jockey Hollow from her home.”
She said the problem is too many deer. “The forest is dying,” she said.
Many agreed with that conclusion, but what management plan to use was at the center of the debate Wednesday.
Representatives of The League of Humane Voters of New Jersey and the Animal Protection League of New Jersey called for an overhaul of the proposed National Park Service plan.
Susan Russell, a wildlife policy specialist for both organizations, questioned the assumptions the park service used to establish deer management guidelines.
She cited studies from Connecticut and Virginia that challenged the notion that deer browsing leads to forest failure.
She also challenged the assumption that deer browsing was a major factor in the spread of an invasive plant, the Japanese barberry.
The Connecticut study said that when Japanese barberry plants were physically removed, the plants did not regenerate. Russell asked, “if the park mechanically removes J. barberry, and deer do not spread the seed, and deer do spread native plant seeds, the why kill deer?” [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story failed to attribute this question to Russell.]
Russell said so many deer are in Jockey Hollow because adjacent land owners like the Morris Park Commission allow hunting and the deer escape into the national park. In addition, she said, culling the deer herd leads to an expanded range and increased births.
John Rogalo of Stanhope, an officer with the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said that in Allamuchy State Park, open public recreation hunting has been an effective management tool to manage the white-tail deer herd. In more than 50 years, he said, there has not been one off-site incident at that park.
He said that the National Park Service needs to be concerned that its vegetative management plan it does not create “a synthetic forest,” one with a dearth of native species.
Representatives of watershed groups and environmental watchdogs, including the Great Swamp Watershed Association, the Musconetcong Watershed Association and the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, questioned certain aspects off the proposed plan, but generally favored it because it would be one more method of protecting the region’s watersheds.
Information on the proposed National Park Service plan can be viewed here.
Comments also can be mailed to: Mr. Robert Masson, Biologist, Morristown National Historical Park, 30 Washington Place, Morristown, NJ 07960.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of deer per acre instead of per square mile.