For many Hopewell Valley residents, a day doesn’t go by that you don’t spot a deer, or nearly run into one. What residents may not realize is the staggering situation we currently face as a result of their overpopulation. However, the Hopewell Township Deer Management Advisory Committee (HTDMAC) is working on remedying this problem.
According to Mike Van Clef, Stewardship Director at Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FOHVOS) and a member of HTDMAC, “the ‘natural’ population of deer per square mile is 10 to 20. In Hopewell Township, we boast around 150 deer per square mile.”
“The deer are so populous, they are changing the very character of the landscape,” said Van Clef. This translates into a complex array of issues, from road safety, to plant biodiversity, to property damage, as well as the spread of disease.
“Coming up with a plan to address the situation is essential to the future of our shared landscape,” explained Chris Pazdan, co-chair of the HTDMAC. “Whether you are a hiker, homeowner, farmer, cyclist, or an automobile operator, the increasing number of deer across the County are an issue directly impacting your experience and safety.” For more than a decade now, Pazdan has been working on this issue, alongside fellow committee members, Bill Cane, Township Committee member Kristin McLaughlin, and Van Clef, all of whom were interviewed for this article.
The HTDMAC is at work to address the issue in part with a hunting program rigorously administered through the Township. Of the nearly 40,000 acres that make up Hopewell Township, 34% is publicly held according to the 2018 Township Master Plan. “These acres offer an opportunity to utilize hunting as a means of reducing the doe population,” explained Van Clef. How it works, said Pazdan is through a “rigorously administered program that awards a very limited number of permits to licensed hunters, giving them access to cull deer from select public lands that would otherwise not be permissible to hunting,” explained Pazdan.
“While the program has been in place for over ten years, public awareness of the program is needed to make it as successful as possible. There are many deer now living in pockets where they can’t be hunted. We want the public to understand this is a positive thing for everyone,” explained Cane, a life-long resident and hunter in the Township.
McLaughlin added that, “without a strong natural predator population, hunters play that critical role in the ecosystem.” The number of hunters is highly controlled so that the activity is both successful in terms of harvest as well as enjoyable to hunters. Pazdan also noted that, “deer hunting is more than just a management tool. It keeps alive part of the Township’s culture and creates a dialogue among constituents who all share an interest in our public lands.” Echoed McLaughlin, “We see this program as a shared effort amongst the hunter and the public to address the deer population problem.
A couple of factors play into the success of the program. One challenge has been enforcement of rules for trail use during the season. “Remaining off the closed trails is a way to support the program. Where trails remain open during hunting season, dress in HIGHLY visible clothing and utilize trails during the off-hunting hours. The fact is that trail use during the hunting process jeopardizes the success of the hunt as well as everyone’s safety,” explained Pazdan.
It is also important to know where and when hunting occurs in order to support the program. “The State hunting season runs from mid September through mid February; however each landholder manages hunting and public access differently,” explained Van Clef. ”FOHVOS, for example, allows hunting 50 days of the year with their properties closed to other users during those days, while D&R Greenway allows for management hunting for around 100 days on select parcels and allows for trail use to co-occur with hunting.”
By State law, Sundays and Mondays are hikers only, regardless of the landowner. “We see this program as a shared effort amongst the hunter and the public to address the deer population problem. The expectation is that if everyone is well informed they will honor one another and the rules,” Van Clef added. “Out of 365 days of the year, FOHVOS closes their properties for 50 of them to allow for hunting. It is a fair and equitable share for everyone’s benefit.”
As to the effectiveness of the program, Pazdan explained: “We reached 80 percent of our goal which was over 140 deer for the program.” He then added, “Yes it is still behind the growth issues, but we are only one group. There are other programs and private land hunting that contribute to the total. The numbers are low but without all groups just think how bad it would be!” On the programs impact, Van Clef explained, “while the populations can be locally depressed around areas with deer management, these areas are too small relative to the size of the Valley. The fact that hunting is not allowed or feasible across 45% of the Valley is a big part of the problem. So we need more access and more effective hunting across the entire Valley to reduce the herd.”
What can we do as a community? Both Pazdan and Van Clef echo one another. “Support hunting wherever possible. “We (HTDMAC) are also working with private landowners to bring hunting to their properties,” explained Pazdan. “It becomes an even more complex issue, but the HTDMAC is dedicated to connecting property owners with hunters,” he added.
Van Clef emphasized the financial aspect. “Support using tax dollars to pay hunters to increase harvests so it isn’t only their time and money, and also offering tax dollars to have those deer donated.” Programs such as Hunters Helping the Hungry provides funding to individual hunters on private lands to donate deer; however they do not fund deer management hunters. Hunters are left to pay out of their own pockets to donate deer. “It’s a great program,” Van Clef shared, “but would be even better if they had money to support deer management programs.
Hunter, hiker, homeowner, concerned commuter? Get to know more about the impact of deer in our community, the HTDMC and the hunting program at https://www.hopewelltwp.org/299/Deer-Management-Advisory-Committee