More than 100 farmers, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, hunters and Sourland region residents gathered together at the Hopewell Theater last week to search for a solution to a problem they all share: the overpopulation of white-tailed deer.
The deer population in the Hopewell Valley region is 91 per square-mile, according to a recent study conducted by Michael Van Clef, stewardship director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. “That’s nine times more than the ecosystem can support,” Van Clef said. “Studies have shown, for numerous impacts, that 10 deer per square-mile is where you should be.”
In an effort to address the problem of deer overpopulation, the Sourland Conservancy and Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space teamed up to produce a documentary about the issue.
The Deer Stand, a short documentary by award-winning filmmaker Jared Flesher, was screened at Hopewell Theater on Oct. 3 and can be viewed in its entirety for free at vimeo.com/219385309.
Following the film, the audience participated in a question and answer panel discussion moderated by Lisa Woff, FoHVOS executive director. The discussion centered on statistics and actions in relation to the deer overpopulation problem: car accidents, crop depredation and its effect on cost of farm production, forest health, hunting safety, and state and federal regulations.
Carole Stanko, chief of the Bureau of Wildlife Management at NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife said State Farm Insurance Company calculates the number of deer/vehicle collisions in each state.
“In New Jersey, we probably take out more deer with vehicles than we do with guns and bows during hunting season… Because we’ve extirpated all of the natural predators for deer in the state of New Jersey, the only predators are hunters and vehicles,” Stanko said.
Hopewell Police Chief Maloney agreed that deer/auto collisions are frequent in Hopewell Township. He said out of the 808 crashes in 2016, 181 involved deer. The police department also received 268 struck deer calls, which are made when deer are found dead on the side of the road without a crash report. Maloney said these numbers only represent incidents where an official report is filed, and the actual number of deer/auto collisions is most likely higher.
Farmers have witnessed the devastating effects of overpopulation for many years. Robert Fulper, of Fulper Family Farmstead, a 1200 acre dairy and crop farm in West Amwell, said deer damage is most likely their biggest cost of crop production.
“Last year, one of our 40 acre fields was hit so bad, we couldn’t even harvest it,” Fulper said. “I don’t want to hunt; I only do it because I have to. We have hunters, but every year we’re getting less and less because the costs, complicated state paperwork and the negative environment around hunting.”
Local farmer Rob Flory echoed Fulper’s statements, adding that it’s a problem for all residents. “Over the years, I’ve seen the deer damage increase. Now, they’re eating things they shouldn’t just to survive. For instance, I never used to fence potatoes at all. Deer don’t like potatoes. This year, they ate everything. It was a total loss.”
Brian Kubin, one of the most successful deer management hunters in the state, said roughly 70 percent of the deer he kills get donated to Hunters Sharing the Harvest, an organization that donates the food to soup kitchens. However, due to there being few deer butchers in New Jersey, hunters often have drive far away to have it processed themselves.
Similar programs in other states, like Pennsylvania, are funded by hunters’ fees and other means. The cost of donating deer in New Jersey is prohibitive to management hunters. Caroline Katmann, Sourland Conservancy executive director, said the conservancy is planning a deer planning symposium in the spring.
“We hope to take all of the issues that we have been talking about for years, and actually come up with some action plans — some ways to move forward to solve the problem,” Katmann said. “The forest is dying. We need access. We need to train deer management hunters. But there’s still the problem of funding. Who can afford to donate 100 deer? We need to do something different. It’s a complex problem, but we need to do something to solve it or we’re not going to have a forest; we’re not going to have farmers in New Jersey.”
Much of the land in the Hopewell Valley is developed with lots that are too small to allow hunting under current regulations.
Hopewell Township Mayor Kevin Kuchinski encouraged anyone with ideas on how to solve the deer overpopulation to contact his office.
“We need to do something differently or the problem is not going to change,” Kuchinski said.
For more information about deer management, visit fohvos.org.