Deer and Jockey Hollow: A Chance to Get it Right

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Deer and Jockey Hollow: A Chance to Get it Right

[Ed. Note:

By Susan Russell, Wildlife Policy Specialist, League of Humane Voters of New Jersey, August 2011

It is not fashionable to defend this beleaguered species. Conservation groups partnered with gun, ammunition and archery manufacturers (“nature-related businesses”) exuberantly pursue the systematic killing of deer, even in our back yards. Commercial partners who caused the problem profit from de-regulation and increased hunter access to private and public land. The trade has identified both as necessary for (sharply declining) client retention and recruitment.

With a wink and a nod, the seminal cause of artificial abundance, and mitigating science, remain resolutely off the table. All are important in resolving the problem, where it exists.

Blame for degraded conditions at Morristown National Historical Park has fallen solely on the white-tailed deer. The Park Service acknowledges that many of its proposals are based on hypotheses.

Deer numbers have not spontaneously “exploded;” the species was pushed. The first order of business is to stop the pushing.

The second is instilling a modicum of ethics in how civil society treats timid animals that are farmed as “crops” for the amusement, and profit, of so few.

The third is to usher interests who sell bullets out of the “conservation” business, especially when taxpayers are footing the bill. Antiquated game management policies conflict with broader science and societal needs.

The National Park Service had for decades resisted managing park lands to maximize deer and recreational hunting. As a result, and with natural fluctuations, the MNHP deer population remained stable.

In 1975, researchers stipulated that the unhunted deer at Jockey Hollow were not damaging the understory. “But look at the 1980s,” say kill advocates. By all means: In 1977, the Journal of Wildlife Management reported that “deer herds are being managed with ever-increasing intensity, with a primary management plan of increasing the productivity of the whitetail deer through habitat manipulation and harvest regulation.”

For decades, the killing of males forced unnaturally high reproduction, as did habitat manipulation. In less than ideal habitat, 38 percent of does bear twins at hunted sites, versus 14 percent at non-hunted sites. In optimum habitat, killing keeps birth rates high. Depending on the ratio, killing females can keep a high density population “productive.” Killing too many deer can lead to population collapse.

Jockey Hollow is not an ecological island. Ultimately, the park and its deer were influenced by outside “game” management, pervasive hunting, development, and, early on, Park Service failure to mechanically remove invasive Japanese barberry.

The cumulative impacts began to be seen during the 1980s. There are seven Wildlife Management Areas in Morris County. Black River WMA “enhances” deer breeding range; on its outskirts, townships kill deer as pests. Burning and early succession, or deer range, are current conservation vogues. The Morris County Parks Commission and New Jersey Audubon exacerbated matters by initiating sustained hunts at Lewis Morris Park, adjacent to MNHP, and 16 other parks. Deer respond to human predation by moving deeper into forests and unhunted tracts. Hunted does will expand their home range by 30 percent.

Game managers indict the native whitetail for not consuming Jockey Hollow’s non-native Japanese barberry, and for browsing on what is left of the native understory. Japanese barberry, once promoted by game agencies, is highly invasive in the absence of deer, its seed spread by birds. Barberry’s roots are shallow but tough, it grows several feet tall, and it shades out native plants. Exclosure studies in Connecticut show Japanese barberry within, and without, deer exclosures.

The whitetail is a keystone herbivore that has co-evolved with forests for 3.4 million to 3.9 million years.

“The Science of Overabundance” (Smithsonian) cautioned that absent adequate science, “management should not continue to reduce deer numbers systematically to enhance woody tree production because this may have dire consequences for the entire ecosystem.”

According to Yale University studies (2010), deer density is not a leading factor in determining variation in vegetation impacts across western Connecticut: “the empirical basis for presumptions that white-tailed deer cause forest regeneration failure is limited.”

“Species diversity was generally higher outside of deer exclosures,” reports another Connecticut study, “smaller canopy trees seemed to benefit from deer browsing.”

2004 studies conclude that white-tailed deer represent a significant vector of seed dispersal for hundreds of native plant species across North America landscape. The Smithsonian also makes this point.

Studies in Virginia show that deer affect “only the smaller stage classes of trees likely to die due to other limiting factors” and do not, as the Park Service plan says, affect forest canopy diversity down the line unless other disturbances — proposed by the Service — are present.

Thinning tree canopies and “controlled” burning proposed by the Park Service are deer range management, and will both draw deer and lead to higher reproduction.

According to forestry experts: “Typically, a forest that consisted primarily of large oak trees may naturally reproduce to become one in which oak is a minor component or absent altogether.”

If you’ve heard none of this, ask why.

It is not fashionable to defend this beleaguered species. Conservation groups partnered with gun, ammunition and archery manufacturers (“nature-related businesses”) exuberantly pursue the systematic killing of deer, even in our back yards. Commercial partners who caused the problem profit from de-regulation and increased hunter access to private and public land. The trade has identified both as necessary for (sharply declining) client retention and recruitment.

With a wink and a nod, the seminal cause of artificial abundance, and mitigating science, remain resolutely off the table. All are important in resolving the problem, where it exists.

The partners’ steering committee, dominated by shooting interests, pursues “mutually beneficial” management. Micro-managed habitat, “good” and “bad” native species, both plant and animal, “preferred” species, killing natural predators, large and small, so that humans may shoot them, and deer, which leads to more killing — designer forests. Except that 99 percent of the public is not in on the private deal, “commodity-based conservation.”

This is 2011. Our forests and our wildlife are national treasures. They are not owned by unseemly partnerships based on, and perpetuating, 19th century attitudes and mistakes.