Home » Hunters and farmers work together to reduce deer damage

Hunters and farmers work together to reduce deer damage

by Amie Rukenstein

The Hopewell Township Deer Management Advisory Committee invited residents whose property is farmland assessed for a discussion about how the overabundance of deer in the Hopewell Valley decimates crops, destroys forest understory, and creates driving hazards. The meeting on June 22 drew an audience of about a dozen very engaged individuals who brainstormed with the committee about solutions.

The Committee’s co-chairs, Bill Cane, and Chris Pazdan, both lifelong Township residents and hunters, took turns explaining the state of deer management in the Township. 

Cane explained that a healthy deer population is about 10 deer per acre and that the Hopewell Valley population in recent years is about 100 per acre.  

“I was born and raised in Titusville,” he said, “and we never saw a deer between the canal and the river, but now it is a frequent occurrence.”

The Deer Management Committee has existed for about 12 years and currently manages 14 hunting sites on Township land.

Pazdan explained that hunters must go through a State safety program and take an exam to be qualified. He added that hunters must also undergo a police background check, be insured, and take a refresher safety course annually. He said the program is very strict. The standards for hunters established by the Deer Management committee also are very high in that hunters are not allowed to only “trophy hunt” for antlered deer – they have a quota of non-antlered deer they must make in order to be invited back.

However, Pazdan said he sees a major challenge in managing deer in the lack of younger hunters. “When I was in high school, the first day of deer hunting season was like a national holiday,” he said. Now he thinks the average age of hunters is about 50.

He added that another challenge is that deer are very good at hiding. They know where the hunting will be and they go into pockets of safety on privately-owned land where the hunters can’t go. The deer avoid the hunted Township, County and Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS) lands during hunting season and Cane explained that, although Washington Crossing State Park, has many acres that harbor deer, it does not allow sufficient hunting and the Township has no control over that.  

At the same time, Pazdan said, farmers have never seen such damage. “A farmer can lose 20 acres of crops in one night,” he stated.

Because of this, the committee urged that residents with farmland assessments allow hunting on their property. Committee members explained that allowing hunters onto private land is the key to reducing the deer population.

NJ DEP Fish and Wildlife publishes the rules for hunting. To allow hunters on private property, the land must be at least five acres of tax assessed farmland. Hunting with a gun must be at least 450 feet away from buildings while bowhunting must be 150 feet away. Hunters must use tree stands and shoot down to the ground in order to avoid accidents. Private landowners can set any rules they want about access to the property – choosing days and hours that suit them best. Landowners granting permission to hunt are protected from liability under the New Jersey Landowner’s Liability Act. 

DEP suggests that private landowners allowing hunting:

  • “Make the harvesting of antlerless deer a condition of access.
  • “Use as many of the available deer hunting days and seasons as you can.
  • “Coordinate your hunting efforts with those on adjacent properties.
  • “Farmers should make every effort to know what their hunters are shooting…perhaps with a daily hunt log that hunters have to fill out, perhaps with visual inspection of harvested deer to ensure the taking of females.”

The committee said that they are ready, willing, and able to advise landowners on how to manage hunters. They also encouraged homeowners who are not comfortable with hunting on their land to allow access to hunters to walk through to drive the deer out of the pockets of private land onto the land that hunters can access.

In answer to an audience member question, Mike Van Clef, a committee member and Stewardship Director for FoHVOS, explained that, since last year, the population is likely down to about 70 deer per acre due to a wasting disease the deer suffered from. But he said that it was horrible for the deer as they died of thirst next to streams. Furthermore, as the epidemic passes, the population will quickly bounce back. “It’s a health hazard and the deer suffer; it’s not something we can rely on to reduce the herds,” he said.

In addition to the benefit of reducing herds to protect farms, the environment, and drivers, butchered deer meat is donated to a program called Hunters Helping the Hungry. Pazdan said that last year, the program received 24,000 pounds of meat, which made 104,000 meals for people in need.

This article really hits only the tip of the iceberg of the extensive conversation that was held between the committee and the public. There was also a wide ranging discussion about a program called “depredation” that farmers can use if their crops are being severely hurt by deer. Under the depredation program, farmers can allow hunters to come in out of season.

Mayor Courtney Peters-Manning stated that the overpopulation of deer is “an ecological disaster and a public safety issue”. She encouraged anyone who would like more information to contact the Committee at [email protected], or email her at [email protected]. Van Clef also expressed that he is happy to answer questions about deer management and he can be reached at [email protected].

The committee will hold another meeting in the fall.

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