After hearing passionate testimony from differing views on the annual county-run deer hunt in South Mountain Reservation, Maplewood’s Township Committee voted to go forward with the deer hunt. Reflecting concerns about the hunt, Maplewood Mayor Vic De Luca voted cast the sole dissenting vote.
Officials painted the hunt as regrettable but necessary. The deer, they emphasized, are overpopulated and consequently tearing apart the forest’s flora and fauna. Officials and supporters presented evidence demonstrating how plant life has dramatically improved as a result of the hunts and other efforts by government workers and volunteers.
Opponents of the hunt, a number of whom traveled from neighboring towns to speak, argued that killing deer is unnecessarily cruel when other options of population control are available. They voiced safety concerns and questioned the need for further hunting in light of the success of previous years.
Presenting the case for the deer hunt, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo characterized the deer problem as a health issue and emphasized the need for keeping residents safe. He also decried the environmental toll the large deer population had taken on the environment.
“Because there are too many deer, the vegetation has been destroyed,” DiVincenzo said.
This year’s hunt will be a reduction from the ones held over the past two years. In January and February, the hunters will be out on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Maplewood and Milburn sections of the reservation during the afternoons only. In previous years, the afternoon hunt was supplemented by a morning one.
Kathleen Salisbury, president of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey demonstrated how her group has been working with the county to regenerate the forest. She said that volunteers and other workers have planted 46,343 plants in 42 acres of the reservation.
Dennis Percher, chair of the board of trustees of the South Mountain Conservancy said the forest was dying due to the overabundance of white tail deer.
“Forest regeneration will never work unless the deer population drops to 10 per square mile,” Percher said. Through controlling the deer, he said the conservation could be returned to its former glory of 50 years ago where “you could get lost in the reservation.”
Daniel Bernier, the wildlife management consult hiring by the county to run the culling, emphasized that the hunt was not a sport or recreation opportunity, and would be conducted by experienced hunters licensed by the state using controlled methods.
The views expressed during the public comments were split between supporters and opponents of the deer hunt. While some speakers defended the hunt from an environmental point of view, saying the deer killing had allowed the forest to re-grow, others questioned the need for the hunt.
“Why are the deer being blamed for everything,” one resident asked, adding, “culling in this age is barbaric and grotesque.”*
Pointing to pictures showing dramatic re-growth of the forest, the woman said the photos didn’t show the “bloody trail of the deer.”
Another speaker, South Orange resident Leslie Gilman, expressed concerns about bullet trajectory and that residue from bullets would make the deer meat, which is donated to local food banks, dangerous to eat. She and other speakers advocated pursuing non-lethal means of controlling the deer population such as contraceptive birth control.
Officials said that birth control would not work, as a viable method of deploying it has not been found. Morris County experimented with darts, Bernier said, and were not able to tag enough deer. He also said that the hunters, who are positioned in trees 20 feet above the ground, only shoot downward and kill 80 percent of deer with their first shot, which he said minimized the danger of stray bullets.
“The only program that works is this program,” DiVincenzo said.
In explaining his vote in favor of the hunt, Deputy Mayor Fred Profeta—who is known for his environmental advocacy—emphasized the need for re-growth of vegetation and said killing deer was the best option.
“It’s not nice for the deer, that’s for sure,” Profeta said. “But in terms of human treatment… it’s preferable.”
Mayor Vic De Luca cast the sole dissenting vote.
“It’s worth a no vote so that there will be someone on the record saying we should look at alternatives,” De Luca said.
Editor's note: We incorrectly attributed a quote to Leslie Gilman in the original version of this article. It has been changed. We regret the error.