The New Jersey Audubon Society angered animal rights activists in March. After collaborating with animal rights and other groups in opposing New Jersey’s bear hunt, the New Jersey Audubon Society released a report endorsing deer hunting as an effect method for managing New Jersey’s large white-tailed deer population.
In a 25-page white paper analyzing threats to New Jersey’s forests,, the Audubon Society said that the estimated 200,000 white-tailed deer in the state threatened to further stress the habitats of birds and other wildlife.
According to the report,
Deer are more abundant today than ever before. In many regions of New Jersey, they are driving rapid ecosystem alterations resulting in local extirpation of native plants and a subsequent takeover by invasive species. While white-tailed deer are clearly a native inhabitant of New Jersey, their current level of abundance is not. Since European settlement, white-tailed deer have expanded their geographic range and greatly increased in abundance. . . . Statewide, deer densities range from a low of 5 deer per km^2 in South Jersey in the Pine Barrens up to 30 per km^2 in central New Jersey. However, some local populations of deer are estimated to be as high as 78 deer per km^2 (NJ Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife 1999).
. . .
. . . Elevated deer densities have devastating impacts on the understory of forests and even the regeneration of the forest itself. Most wildflowers and herbs that grow in the forest understory are preferred forage of white-tailed deer and their disappearance is one of the earliest indicators of unbalanced deer densities. . . .
. . . When browsing on woody plants, deer show clear preferences, with sugar maple, white ash, oaks, yellow poplar, hemlock, white pine, and white cedar being a few of their favorites (Drake et al. 2002). This can lead to a complete alteration of the species composition of forests. In New England and the Upper Great Lakes, eastern hemlock has been undergoing decades of recruitment failure. . . .
If a forest or shrubland is subjected to continued elevated deer densities, the understory and mid-story layers will disappear. The long-term impact of such a scenario is the creation of “deer savannas” or “deer parks.” These aesthetically pleasing but biologically destitute areas are characterized by higher densities of ferns and grasses (species not preferred by deer) or park-like habitats of large trees completely lacking an understory that are clear and open beneath, allowing extensive visibility for long distances (Rooney 2001). Such drastic changes in forest structure also impact wildlife. deCalesta (1994) found that both species richness and abundance declined significantly for intermediate canopy nesting birds (nesting 0.5 m – 7.5 m) on heavily browsed sites with a number of species absent entirely from the browsed areas. . . .
Okay, so deer are a problem. But aren’t there solutions other than hunting? The animal rights activists are always talking about using birth control for deer, for example, won’t that work? Not according to the evil animal exploiters at the New Jersey Audubon Society (emphasis added),
Reproductive control including sterilization, contraception, and contragestation has also been proposed as a means to control overabundant deer populations. Reproductive control agents have been demonstrated on individual animals but an efficient, cost-effective means of delivering large-scale population control of deer is not yet available. Difficulty arises in identifying a cost-effective means of treating individual animals. Surgical sterilization is highly effective, but extremely costly, requiring capture and handling of each individual animal. Effective contragestation drugs like prostaglandin are known, but require precise delivery within the gestational cycle of does to allow effective abortion of the fetus. Contraceptive drugs are currently classified as experimentally by the FDA and not legal for widespread use in the U.S. Safety concerns about drug impacts on deer meat are also slowing advancement of these drugs. Contraceptive and contragestation drugs carry a per animal cost between $430 and $1000 per animal per treatment with a need to retreat individual animals annually (Peck and Stahl 1997, Schantz et al. 2001).
Reproductive controls can be effective when used on a closed or nearly closed deer population, with little or no ingress. For example, reproductive control may be effective on captive herds or in small, self-contained urban parks generally lacking corridors connecting the park to other potential habitat and deer populations. However, when reproductive control methods are used on deer populations that are already creating overbrowsing problems, they will not be successful without a companion strategy to lower the current deer herd to levels compatible with local ecosystem health. Urban and suburban deer experience extremely low annual mortality rates, increased longevity and high birth rates. An effective reproduction control program would have to be paired with an initial population reduction in order to meet restoration objectives (Nielson et al. 1997).
So what’s the solution? The New Jersey Audubon Society endorses hunting provided that it is coupled with policies to sustain deer populations at a level that takes into account the biodiversity issues it raises in its report, rather than following policies that seek to maximize deer population in the state,
Because regulated deer hunting generates revenue through license sales, it can be a cost-effective and efficient means for deer population management. However, the effectiveness of deer control via regulated hunting is contingent upon a clear departure from traditional goals of “maximum sustained yield” and “biological carrying capacity” to a more biodiversity based objective. Wildlife management to facilitate hunting opportunities has been a key contributor to deer overpopulation. Traditional deer management centered for years on the maximum sustainable yield model. Under this form of management, deer populations are maintained from year-to-year at a level that produces maximum recruitment with the maximum number of animals available for hunters to harvest (McCullough 1984). The major problem with this method is that if deer herds are managed for maximum sustainable yield, they are being maintained well above relative deer density levels associated with sustaining biodiversity and timber productivity and regeneration (deCalesta and Stout 1997).
So, in the end, the New Jersey Audubon Society’s endorsement of hunting is guarded. Yes, it concedes, hunting is an efficient method to reduce the deer population. But, the New Jersey Fish and Game Commission has to stop managing deer in such a way that encourages the deer population to reach levels that are harmful to other species even if deer themselves are below the state’s carrying capacity.
Stuart Chaifetz, Director of New Jersey’s Animal Protection PAC, fired back a lame non-sequitur that said the Audubon Society “had no standing to demonize deer when they themselves bear responsibility for the destruction of thousands of trees.”
In Chaifetz’s world, because the New Jersey Audubon Society supported a 2002 plan to clear-cut 125 acres in a South Jersey forest, its complaints about the effect of white-tailed deer in the state are not credible. Chaifetz wrote an op-ed responding to the New Jersey Audubon Society in which he wrote,
How many birds were exterminated when all those magnificent trees were torn down and pulverized? How many animals were crushed under the massive weight of the bulldozers that devastated that once glorious forest? All this environmental destruction was done in the name of promoting hunting and Audubon was credited for helping make it happen. For them to declare ware on deer is one of the most obscene forms of hypocrisy imaginable.
Chaifetz — not surprisingly — leaves out quite a bit of information from his rant.
The development he complains about split environmentalists with the Sierra Club opposing, and the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and Nature Conservancy supporting it. The idea was that prior to European colonization of the area, this several hundred acres of forest had actually been a grassy savanna. Fire suppression over the past couple centuries had led it to become forested.
The project aimed to restore a portion of the area back to a savanna on the hypothesis that it might provide habitat for rare plants and butterflies, such as the endangered frosted elfin butterfly.
Hunters supported the plan because it would potentially lead to more quail in the region for hunting, and forestry experts supported it to create a fire break after a 2002 fire that in the region.
At a minimum, Chaifetz embarrasses himself by depicting the New Jersey Audubon Society as rapacious developers who wanted to increase the deer population with the 2002 clear-cut project.
And what does Chaifetz propose to solve New Jersey’s deer problem,
1. The immediate cessation of all Council and Division programs to produce food for deer. This includes all clear-cutting projects.
2. Hunters must not only become a minority on the Council, but must be removed from positions of authority within the Division. Without this vital reform, nothing will ever change.
3. Biologist working for the Division, who have lost their credibility because of their extreme pro-hunting stance, should be replaced by modern-day biologists who are objective and care more for doing science than selling licenses.
4. The scientific foundation for non-lethal reproductive control is real and workable — but only if the state chooses to put the effort into making it happen. We live in the 21st century with all the technological and scientific advanced that were promised at hand. Better we should embrace this instead of turning shotgun shells and arrows that cripple as many as they kill.
We put a man on the moon, isn’t it obvious that non-lethal reproductive methods must be efficient? And Chaifetz complains about others who lack objectivity!
It is also interesting that shooting deer is apparently cruel and not sufficiently “21st century”, but starving deer to death (or forcing them to even more intensively stress the forest understory) by the sudden suspension of food is perfectly acceptable. Ah, those compassionate animal rights activists.
New Jersey hunters get an unlikely ally. Concord Monitor, March 20, 2005.
Cutting down trees may preserve species. Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press, August 13, 2002.
AP-PAC’s Response to Audubon and the Slaughter of Deer. Stuart Chaifetz, March 22, 2005.
NJÂ’s Forest Health Is Threatened; Immediate Action Needed. Press Release, New Jersey Audubon Society, March 2005.
Forest Health and Ecological Integrity: Stressors and Solutions (PDF). New Jersey Audubon Society, March 2005.