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Don't Feed the Deer

White-tailed deer are amazing animals. They sprint up to 45 mph and leap 10 feet in a single bound.

Native American tribes believed deer had spiritual significance, representing sensitivity, intuition, and gentleness. The deer was an animal of power.

In Nara, Japan, an ancient city famous for its old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, deer are recognized as the messenger of gods, and they walk freely through the crowded town and streets.

In rural, increasingly suburban Montgomery Township, many people love the backyard visit: observing the wobbly spotted fawns with their mothers, or the grand bucks. Fawns use forsythia bushes or nooks between the HVAC unit and the home as cribs. Homeowners watch them grow up, and hear them bleat for their mothers, who return to feed them and the end of the day.

“When I look out my window and see a pair of eight-point bucks, or a half dozen does and fawns, I cannot help but marvel at their majesty, beauty and grace,” says Cliff Wilson, past president and emeritus trustee of the Sourland Conservancy.

“Then I sigh and shake my head, remembering that the overpopulation of these marvelous creatures has created tremendous ecological problems for the Sourland Mountain region. In truth, the oversized deer herd is destroying the Sourland forest.”

The problem is real. Hopewell Township measures the deer population every March, and most recently counted 90 deer per square mile. “That’s about 8,000 deer,” according to Michael Van Clef of the Friends of Hopewell Open Space.

Looking for immediate solutions to save local forests and cull the burgeoning deer herds, Van Clef and Wilson joined the Sourland Conservancy Deer Management Symposium at the Princeton Elk’s Lodge in Skillman, which included about 70 people from a variety of backgrounds — hunters, farmers, landowners, environmentalists, and municipal, county and state officials.

On a snowy Tuesday evening in late March, the stakeholders dined on venison then split into work groups to brainstorm and identify long and short-term solutions. The group will meet again in the near future to create and implement action plans.

One immediate and easy action is to not feed the deer. The New Jersey Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee just introduced a bill (Assembly, No. 3242) that would add a statewide, general prohibition again the feeding of deer.

The bill also would increase financial support and facilitate the administration and expansion of non-profit organizations such as Hunters Helping the Hungry, which provides venison meat to regional food banks.

And, the bill helps farmers by expanding the law relating to deer depredation control activities — which basically would authorize a landowner or lessee to obtain a permit to hunt deer not just on land “under cultivation” for farming, but to hunt on adjacent forested land as part of a woodland management plan.

Local Farmer and Hunter John Hart of John Hart Farms, a family-run working farm spanning 600 acres in Hopewell, said part of the problem is that “not enough people hunt.” Hart Farms products include: hay, corn, rye, soy, cattle, pigs, chickens, and eggs. The property also has horse boarding and riding lessons.

“I remember the first day of buck season, we skipped school and were out there hunting,” Hart says. He lamented about the aging population of hunters being “all in their 70s now.” How do we get more young people involved in hunting?”

One solution mentioned was to legalize the sale of venison. Hunters are currently not allowed by law to sell what they kill, so they limit their hunt to one or two does (as often required by permit) and a trophy buck.

Deer Management Hunter Brian Kubin, who lead a caucus on hunting to manage the burgeoning herds, suggested that private property owner consider opening their land to “management hunters.” Crossbow hunters only need a 50-foot setback from housing structures, as opposed the 450 feet required for guns. So, bow hunting may be a better option for a densely populated state like New Jersey.

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