September marks the beginning of fall — my favorite season. The slight chill in the air arrives as the leaves start to color. While the status of students returning to school remains uncertain, Mother Nature’s routine is unphased by the pandemic.

Photo by Kate Dunham.

An unfortunate truth is that deer share my fondness for autumn. Living in Hopewell Valley means you’ll often see deer, and the risk for deer-vehicle collisions run highest during mating season, which runs from late October to mid-December.

While deer are beautiful creatures to observe, their overabundance has a very detrimental ecological impact to which there is no simple solution.

Deer naturally thrive in our Garden State of New Jersey, where they can heartily feed on our delicious plants, flowers, and forest understory. Other than humans, they have very few predators. Our Valley is home to 105 deer per square mile. This is over 10 times the recommendation of 10 per square mile, for herd balance.

“Deer overpopulation in Hopewell Township is an environmental disaster. More so even than the public health risk from car accidents,” shares Courtney Peters-Manning, Hopewell Township Committee member and liaison to the Environmental Committee. “They decimate our beautiful forests.”

Her assessment is accurate. The layer of trees that grow beneath the forest canopy, but above the forest floor is called “understory.” For a forest to be healthy, it needs a healthy understory.

Unfortunately, without fencing to keep deer away, it is almost impossible to grow new trees in our forests. Native shrubs, small trees and wildflowers have declined by nearly 80%. In the past, native plants accounted for over 95% of all plant cover and now the balance has shifted to invasive species making up over 50% of plant cover.

With the increase in deer over the last 50 years, native plants have declined, and invasive plants have increased.

The Princeton Council has had an aggressive deer management plan for years, and Pennington Borough Council expects to take similar action.

“It’s a shame it’s come to this but the deer population in Pennington has to be reduced. So many people spend hours upon hours make their gardens and landscape look beautiful, only to wake up the next morning to see everything eaten by a herd of deer,” said Charles Marciante, a Pennington Borough councilman. “By thinning the herds that graze in town, we’ll have a better chance of controlling the destruction they cause.”

The landscape planting losses are difficult to control because many deer repellents are ineffective. Hungry deer have begun consuming plants previously deemed deer resistant. The outlook for agricultural losses is even worse. According to Rutgers University. New Jersey growers reported 70% of their crop losses from wildlife were due to deer.

Finally, a dense population of deer contributes overall to more cases of Lyme disease, since infected ticks use deer as their host.

We’ve made perfect habitat for deer with forest edges, farm fields and homes that protect deer from hunters and feeds them a diet much more copious and nutritious than a native forest. Further, hunting has not been tremendously effective.

Forty percent of Hopewell Valley lacks hunting access. When hunting does occur, it is often “trophy hunting” rather than “management hunting.” Trophy hunters kill mature male deer or bucks with large antlers, which does not help with population control, and some studies indicate it may actually result in increased populations.

Management hunting requires time and money to be very productive.

Visit fohvos.org to learn more about deer management options. In the meantime, if you are a private landowner, consider the following options to help control the deer population in our area:

Native plant gardening. Garden to protect native plants to replace those eaten by deer. According to Audubon.org, “Because native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, they require far less water, saving time, money, and perhaps the most valuable natural resource, water. In addition to providing vital habitat for birds, many other species of wildlife benefits as well.”

Education. Learn about deer impacts and management of deer overabundance. Research management hunting options for your property. Contact FoHVOS to check for safety zones and receive contact information of safe and effective hunters.

Advocacy. Work with your local municipality to support local and statewide deer management efforts.

Support organizations, such as FoHVOS that engage in deer management, and programs that encourage venison donation efforts, like the New Jersey-based Hunters Helping the Hungry, that have provided over 2 million meals by subsidizing hunters to donate venison to local food banks.

All of us have created the deer overpopulation problem in how we live and utilize the land. It is our hope that all stakeholders will do their share.

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.