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.
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 and countless other forests around the nation. In truth, the oversized deer herd is destroying the Sourland forest.
Wildlife experts estimate that there are now more than twice as many white-tail deer in New Jersey as there were in the year 1700. In our corner of the world, the deer’s natural predators –– bears, wolves, cougars and bobcats - have been eliminated, or very nearly so.
At the same time, forests have been fragmented by development, creating more of the edge-of-woods habitat preferred by deer. These factors have permitted the deer population to grow to an unnatural and unhealthy extent.
While hunting and automobile collisions provide some checks, the size of the Sourland deer herd today is limited principally by the availability of food.
Thus, malnutrition and related illnesses are common, as the size of the herd is too large in relation to the food supply.
Overpopulation is not only bad for the deer, but for humans as well. Deer are now the second largest cause of automobile accidents in New Jersey, trailing only drunken driving. The current epidemic of Lyme disease –– a serious and potentially debilitating infectious disease –– is largely attributable to deer ticks.
Perhaps worst of all, the overpopulation of deer is a true ecological disaster for the forest. Browsing by the oversized herd is literally destroying the understory of the Sourland forest, and, with it, the future viability of the forest itself.
The saplings that represent the next generation of trees are continually eradicated. Native shrubs and herbaceous plants are being consumed to the point of extirpation (that is, local extinction). Deer are destroying the habitat and food sources of countless other species, as well as the long-term prospects of their own habitat.
The Sourland Planning Council strongly advocates a diverse and healthy wildlife population in the Sourlands. Indeed, preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat are central to our mission.
In the case of the white-tail deer, responsible stewardship requires responsible and sustained thinning of the herd.
Human activity created the conditions that allowed this crisis to develop. It is now up to us to restore balance to the Sourland ecosystem.
A number of approaches to the problem have been tried, but responsible hunting –– with an increased emphasis on culling does –– remains the most practical and effective method for controlling the deer population.
Cliff Wilson, a Montgomery resident, is a member of the Sourland Planning Council, “a nonprofit organization working to protect the ecological integrity, historical resources and special character of the Sourland Mountain region.”
This article was reprinted from “Living in the Sourlands: A Guide for Responsible Stewardship.” Visit www.sourland.org for more information.