You’re driving to work one morning, radio on, kids in the backseat, when a giant buck leaps in front of your car. You dig your foot into the brake pedal and dodge the animal by what seems like a few inches. It was a near miss.
In the Hopewell Valley region, incidents such as this one have become a regularity. When Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space’s stewardship director, Michael Van Clef, conducted a study on automobile accidents involving deer in the area, he found at least one person in half of Hopewell Valley’s households has hit a deer. In addition to driving danger, deer are disrupting the ecosystem, wreaking havoc on local farms, and housing more ticks to spread lyme disease.
FoHVOS and the Sourland Conservancy have even commissioned local filmmaker Jared Flesher to make a short movie, “The Deer Stand,” about the issue. The organizations co-hosted a screening of the film on Oct. 3 at the Hopewell Theater. Afterward, FoHVOS executive director Lisa Wolff moderated a panel that included Van Clef, Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm, Hopewell Township police chief Lance Maloney, and Carole Stanko of the state’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.
Van Clef holds a doctorate in ecology from Rutgers University and has been FoHVOS’s director of stewardship for more than 10 years.
“I am trying to undo the damage done to natural areas, address deer overabundance caused by people, and get as many people as possible to do something about it,” Van Clef said in an interview. “Deer’s main predators, wolves and cougars, are now gone because we’ve eliminated them. We’ve also created a big protected salad bowl for deer to eat.”
In an effort to prevent deer-related car accidents, Van Clef created a deer collision hotspot map, which can be viewed at hopewelltwp.org. Van Clef examined thousands of records from the Hopewell Township police department over several years and marked the areas with a high number of deer accidents.
These are the spots, he said, to “slow down and keep your eyes on the side of the road.”
‘I really do have the feeling that if hunting was more aggressive in the park, our problem never would have gotten so bad.’
Hopewell Police Chief Maloney agreed that deer-auto collisions are frequent in Hopewell Township. At the panel discussion he quoted 2016 auto accident figures of 808 crashes, 181 involved deer. Township police also received 268 struck deer calls.
While increasing deer populations are a problem throughout the state, Hopewell holds some of the highest numbers, Van Clef said. He has calculated that the Valley has 91 deer per square-mile. A balanced ecosystem, studies show, should be able to support about 10 deer per square-mile.
“Farmers are giving deer a very nutritious amount of food. More than any natural area could generate. There are so many safe places for deer to go where they can’t be hunted. If it were all natural forests, the deer wouldn’t have enough to sustain themselves,” Van Clef said.
From a deer’s point of view, Van Clef said, an oak leaf is OK, but a soybean “is a gourmet salad. They’re getting bigger faster, maturing faster, and making more babies. The natural foods are, at this point, just a supplement for them.”
Chickadee Creek Farm, a family-owned farm harvesting organic produce, is one of the many affected by the overabundance. Jess Niederer is the 13th generation of Niederer farmers. She returned home to manage Chickadee Creek after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Natural Resources, traveling the world, and working in conservation biology, ornithology, disaster relief, and development work for various amounts of time.
Niederer has long attempted to rectify the deer issue, but neither hunting nor an electric fence could keep them out. Over time, they appeared to grow immune to the shock endured for some tasty produce. The deer “just stopped caring,” Niederer said in a recent phone interview.
The Niederer family worked together to hunt the deer on their property — having received a state depredation permit, which allowed them to hunt through all seasons — and shot approximately 30 deer a year on their 80-acre farm.
“It just wasn’t enough,” Niederer said. “We are adjacent to a lot of preserved parkland and I really do have the feeling that if hunting was more aggressive in the park, our problem never would have gotten so bad. They’re coming from outside.”
Niederer finally decided to partake in a cost-share program presented by the state Agricultural Development Committee. Since Chickadee Creek is preserved farmland, they were eligible for a grant for $16,000 to install a $37,000 fence that would protect 40-acres of the farm. A time-lapse video of the fence being erected can be seen on Chickadee Creek’s Facebook page.
“I never spent this much on anything,” she said. “When applying for the grant, we had to estimate our deer damage per year, in materials and in terms of straight up what they’re eating. I estimated $9,000 per year. Once I looked at that, the deer fence didn’t seem that expensive.”
The fence was completed Oct. 19 of this year and Niederer finally sees an end to their deer problems as long as the gates on the property remain closed. Many of her comrades, however, will not be so lucky.
“I really feel for the farmers who are growing corn and soybeans,” many of whom might not be able to justify the price of a fence with the amount of yield from their crops. Niederer continued, “Their neighbors are not taking care of deer overpopulation and those farmers are having to pay for it. That’s not really fair. We have a happy ending to our story but there are a lot of farmers that are really hurting.”
This hurt is something Van Clef and FoHVOS are trying to eliminate by spreading local awareness. They screened the short documentary by Flesher and hosted the panel, which also featured several area hunters and farmers, to highlight the issues and present potential solutions.
“We point out how everyone has skin in the game,” Van Clef said.
There are many ways to help, such as volunteering with FoHVOS to install forrest fences or making donations to nonprofits such as Hunters Helping the Hungry — a program that delivers deer meat to families in need. One of the most effective ways to help is through hunting.
Van Clef can direct hunters to safe zones in the area where hunting would alleviate high populations of deer. Private landowners with property that could be hunted can contact Van Clef, who can pass along contact information to hunters who understand where and when to hunt. To reach Van Clef regarding deer overabundance in Hopewell, call (609) 730-1560.
State regulations state it is illegal to carry a loaded firearm or nocked arrow within 450 feet of a building or school playground without having written permission from an owner or lessee.
“The Deer Stand” can be viewed in its entirety online at vimeo.com/219385309.