Sourlands Comprehensive Deer Management Plan
The overpopulation of white-tailed deer is a big problem in the Sourlands, where the deer population can reach more than 130 per square mile — more than 10 times the sustainable level. The effects on humans include epidemic levels of Lyme disease (spread by deer ticks), high rates of automobile accidents, and the destruction of gardens and landscaping. Because deer browse and kill nearly all the saplings and seedlings they encounter, the herd poses an existential threat to the forest itself. As mature trees die, there are few viable young trees to take their place. Invasive plants proliferate in these openings, creating permanent holes in the forest.
The Sourland Conservancy, in partnership with the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, has created a Comprehensive Deer Management Plan for the Sourlands. Click here to download the plan.
Why Manage Deer?
Aren’t Deer a Natural Part of the Ecosystem?
White-tailed deer are important native animals in intact natural ecosystems. However, the scale of the deer population has exploded beyond the carrying capacity of our remaining wild landscapes.
Deer overpopulation has had negative impacts on native plants and wildlife, agriculture and human health, and the health of the deer themselves.
In the Sourlands, deer population counts from spring 2013 project a post-birthing population of 135 deer/square mile. This is more than 13 times the estimate of 10/square mile that wildlife biologists have made for deer populations before the year 1492.
In our area, natural predators of deer — bears, wolves, cougars and bobcats — have been eliminated, or very nearly so. Human hunting patterns have changed from year-round subsistence hunting practiced by Native Americans and early colonists to seasonal hunting with an emphasis on taking trophy bucks instead of does.
At the same time, forests have been fragmented by development, creating more of the edge-of-woods, suburban, and agricultural habitat preferred by deer. These factors have permitted the deer population to grow to an unsustainable extent.
What Impacts does Deer Overpopulation Have?
Deer overpopulation causes adverse economic impacts, human health and safety issues, and ecological degradation.
Human Health and Safety
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.
Farmers in New Jersey suffer crop losses of over $15 million annually due to deer herbivory.
Damage to landscaping in neighboring New York State amounts to $49 million annually, no
figures were available for New Jersey.
The economic impact of deer-vehicle collisions in New Jersey is $38 million dollars a year.
How do deer impact other wildlife and plants?
A healthy forest should have canopy trees, saplings, shrubs, and an herb layer of flowers and grasses. Unsustainable levels of deer browse inhibit tree regeneration and decrease diversity and abundance of native wildflowers and shrubs.
Degradation of natural plant communities directly impacts the numerous wildlife species that depend on native plants for shelter and sustenance, dramatically diminishing populations of species ranging from songbirds to butterflies.
The destruction of tree seedlings and saplings means that when canopy trees die, there are no juvenile trees to replace them.
Deer overbrowse also leads to the invasion of non-native plant species, which fill the void left by the disappearance of native plants but do not adequately fill ecological roles as sustenance and structure for wildlife.
Deer Management Basics
How much property do I need in order to hunt?
Deer hunting can occur on any property as long as hunters are at least 150ft (bowhunting) or 450ft (guns) from the nearest potentially occupied structure. Hunting within these safety zones is also possible but requires permission from all affected property owners and/or neighbors whose zones are hunted within.
How can I find a hunter?
Hunters are often looking for huntable land. Spreading the word among friends, family, and acquaintances can result in finding hunters for your property. However, it is important to interview potential hunters to establish a level of trust and to ensure that prospective hunters are willing to work towards your deer management goals.
Hunters are sometimes willing to pay for the privilege of hunting land. Alternately, the service of deer herd reduction can be looked at as adequate compensation for hunting access.
What hunter safety measures are in place?
All hunters in New Jersey are required to be licensed by the State’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. The licensing process includes hunter education as well as marksmanship testing.
Safety zones, as described above, reduce the risk of hunting related accidents by buffering potentially occupied structures.
The common practice of hunting from an elevated stand and shooting downward reduces the potential travel distance of arrows and shot.
Many land management entities require that hunters carry $1 million in general liability insurance. This insurance coverage is easily available to hunters through sportsmen’s associations.
How does deer management differ from deer hunting?
Deer management employs hunting in a strategic manner with the goal of bringing the deer herd into balance with the carrying capacity of the land and reducing impacts to human health and the economy.
Deer hunting without management techniques does not necessarily result in positive changes to population numbers.
A game management philosophy known as “Quality Deer Management” has widespread support among hunters and wildlife managers. Many of the management recommendations below are adapted from the QDM philosophy.
How do hunters benefit from a management approach?
Bringing the deer herd into balance with the carrying capacity of the land is a critical ecological service provided to us by the hunting community.
Hunters benefit from management outcomes by having larger, healthier deer to hunt, including dramatically larger bucks. A more appropriate balance of female and male deer and variety of age classes leads to deer herd dynamics and behavior that are more natural and leads to more challenging and rewarding sport.
Reducing population densities can also reduce the spread of epidemic diseases within the deer herd.
Setting management goals
To reduce deer overpopulation and re-establish more natural herds, deer management needs to harvest female deer preferentially, and reduce hunting pressures on male deer that are in immature age classes.
Reduce populations by harvesting at least one antlerless deer per every five acres of hunted property (ideally female deer, but immature males may sometimes be indistinguishable from females in hunting situations).
Allow bucks to reach maturity by limiting harvest of antlered deer to those with six antler points, with antler spread beyond the tips of the ears.
Hunting success can be verified by requesting tag numbers from hunters for all deer harvested on your property. However, now that the Division of Fish & Wildlife has switched to an electronic check system, hunting success can be verified by requesting photos of all deer harvested on the property, taken next to a recognizable feature of the property (such as a sign or landscape feature) for verification.
Increasing Hunter Efficacy
Several techniques can increase the amount of deer harvested relative to the amount of time a hunter spends in the field.
The use of bait stations, especially timed baiting devices, is an important management technique. It addresses two fundamental problems. The first is the tendency of deer to become nocturnal during the hunting season, concentrating their activity during times of day when hunting isn’t permitted. The use of timed baiting can encourage deer activity during permitted times of day.
The second is the problem of “pocket” deer. Deer congregate in areas without deer management access during the hunting season, only to spread back out through the landscape at night and during the off-season. These non-huntable areas include yards of homes and slivers of wild habitat in residential areas. The use of bait can draw deer out of these “pockets” and into areas where they can be safely hunted.
Driving deer towards hunters is an advanced technique that can be practiced by well-coordinated, experienced groups of hunters. It requires a level of organization and safety precautions that may place it beyond the scope of some private landowners. However, it is an extremely effective practice when employed safely and correctly, and is an important tool for those looking to manage larger parcels of land.
About Depredation Permits
Farmers who can prove crop losses are eligible for deer depredation permits. These permits allow for vastly expanded deer harvesting privileges including off-season and nighttime hunting. They can be an important tool in reducing the millions of dollars of losses farmers in New Jersey face due to crop damage by deer.
Applications for depredation permits, and more information, can be obtained by contacting the the Division of Fish & Wildlife at (908) 735-8793
How can I find out more about State programs and regulations?
The NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife regulates all game hunting in the state. The Division’s web site is at http://www.njfishandwildlife.com. Game Code and hunting questions can also be answered by calling (609) 292-2965.