You could hear the rhythmic hoofbeats advancing through the forest. I had crawled out of the old, low canvas tent my father brought on our camping trips to answer nature’s call. Squinting into the dawn, I searched the blaze of autumn colors for the source. And then it broke brush. With arrogant magnificence, an immense stag leapt into the small clearing of this North Jersey woods, bearing aloft a broad antler rack of at least 12 points. I stood frozen in awe and beheld this stately, grand animal with whom I shared this moment. In a few bounds, he crossed the clearing and slipped into the foliage. There are some things a boy never forgets.
That was 1955. I was age seven, probably younger than the buck. New Jersey’s deer population, which had plummeted to near zero in 1900 under the crush of commercial hunting, had gradually climbed back to nearly 50,000. Even for an actively camping family like mine, spotting any deer was a rare treat indeed.
Forty years later, more than four times that many deer would be browsing through Garden State forests, backyards, and farmlands — and staring back into the headlights of startled motorists at night. In 1995 1.5 million deer/auto collisions in the U.S. caused 211 human deaths and 29,000 injuries. At a recent panel discussion in Hopewell Township the police chief reported that — of 808 car crashes in the township in 2016 — 181 involved deer.
Today, as the early morning sun warms the dew, Mike Van Clef walks through one of Hopewell Valley’s forests and he shakes his head. It scarcely resembles the woods I stood in that autumn morning 62 years ago, or the lush woods of his own childhood in Old Bridge. So many of us now wander such well-hemmed preserves along trails that weave between trunks of beech, maples, and the occasional oak. Our boots scuff through a flooring of dead leaves, fallen branches, and little else. From the ground to the height of our upwardly stretched fingers, the land is pretty much bare of foliage or flowers.
We stare through this open sprawl of naked tree trunks and find it as peaceful as a grave.
“Most people don’t even realize the difference because they’ve grown up with this. But woods like these are empty — they are unhealthy, diminishing forests,” explains Van Clef, who for the last eight years has served as stewardship director for Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (www.fohvos.org). A stand of trees is no more a wilderness than a cookie-cutter housing development is a community neighborhood. In each case, layers of life are missing.
A healthy forest, explains Van Clef, is filled with diverse, living strata. On top, the wide ramage of the mature oaks, beech, and sycamore spread leaves to the sun. Just below, younger trees on the rise, flowering dogwoods, and ironwoods form a sub canopy. From eye to about waist level proliferate the thick snarls of shrubs where songbirds find food and protection from beasts below and raptors above. Sprouting from the rich soils grow ferny swaths and patches of trillium, Solomon seal, and a wildly diverse floral array. Salamanders, turtles, and snails burrow throughout the soft, moisture-laden soil.
On a recent trip to Tasmania, my trekkings through primordial rainforests recalled the aura of those New Jersey forests of my youth. Moss silently advanced everywhere over peacefully fallen logs. The very line between life and death became blurred in the gradual but inevitable dynamic of these cyclical surroundings. I felt not peace, but nature’s fierce energy.
For stewardship director Van Clef, the culprits are clear. Over-populous deer are destroying the natural forest habitat if not as quickly, as completely as the overpopulation of our own species. Deer browse down the native species allowing the invasive plants to push in a monoculture. “People dismiss this shift to invasives such as multi-flora rose and Japanese stiltgrass as just part of evolutionary competition,” says Van Clef. “The deer eat all the trillium and Solomon seal. But when the deer are absent, these natives quickly overpower the invasives and bring the forest back into a nutrient-rich balance.”
#b#The Deer Explosion#/b#
Van Clef sees himself as a steward of nature’s Eden. From his earliest days, when his mother took care of the home and dad went off to work at Bell Labs, young Mike headed for the woods. After earning his bachelor’s in biology from Rutgers University in 1993, he continued his studies there, taking his Ph.D in ecology. His thesis, not surprisingly, compared native vs. non-natural plant species in our forests. His private consulting firm, Ecological Solutions LLC, founded in 2006 and based in Great Meadows in Warren County, brought in more than $1 million in habitation preservation grants from the Highlands to the pine barrens.
Today Van Clef continues his mission to bring back the healthy forests throughout the Hopewell Valley, which runs from the Delaware River on the west to the Sourland Mountains in the north. The valley centers on Hopewell Township and includes pieces of Pennington and Titusville. So why is this ardent environmentalist heading Hopewell’s Deer Management Advisory Committee, which advocates increased hunting of the species? “Because deer are the key to forest management. The over population of one species is destroying so many others,” says Van Clef.
Historically, about 10 deer per square mile has proved a healthy balance for both the deer and their habitat. Prior to 1500 and the coming of European settlement, the deer population remained roughly static at this rate, allowing both deer and forest diversity to flourish. Today, when Van Clef’s crew ride around at night and take count, they are reporting 85 deer per square mile in March, and up to 125 per square mile in June after the birthing season.
In 1972, Hopewell’s 40,000 acres (62.5 square miles) had nudged up to about 12 deer per square mile. Then, several fingers got into the pie. In an attempt to bring back the deer from the near-extinction slaughter of the 19th century, stricter hunting laws were passed, with shorter seasons. Like so many other places, the sprawl of the human hive hit Hopewell. Farmland increased.
“The deer proliferation involves a lot more than just shrinking habitat,” says Van Clef. “While deer were protected, we all but abolished all their natural predators. Secondly was the matter of an enriched diet.” Deer began creeping from the forest with its meager offerings of oak leaves and dining out on fields of corn and soy. “This plentiful food supply naturally multiplied the population past the danger point,” says Van Clef. By 1995 when the national deer population hit record high of near 40 million, states everywhere began to realize it was time to cull the herd. Both environmentalists and legislators turned to the hunters for the solution. This answer did not rest easy on all.
Deer have held an ambiguous niche in the human psyche ever since we Homo sapiens followed them across the land bridge into North America more than 12,000 years ago. Traditionally deer have stood as elegant symbols of the natural, unspoiled world, as well as antlered trophies displaying one’s hunting prowess. Be it with spear, bow, muzzleloader, or shotgun, killing one’s first deer has remained a male rite of passage in many parts of our culture. Their images have been drawn on everything from cave walls to the first issue of Playboy (before being replaced by the ubiquitous bunny).
For native Americans and white colonists, deer exemplified well-fed prosperity. In the Pilgrims’ descriptions of the first Thanksgiving, the authors give gracious nod to the turkeys, but it was the six fresh-killed deer that claimed the climax of that historic feast. Even then, in 1620, the U.S. deer numbers had fallen little from the estimated 45 million pre-historic population. But nature does not hold still forever.
Yes, we still take note of those tender fawn edging across our back yards, wistfully recalling their tie with those realms beyond the human hive. But in recent decades, when prancing deer have become as bold as backyard squirrels, their charm has dropped considerably. Many folks remain squeamish about mass deer killing. The truck bearing the bumper sticker “If it’s Brown, Bring it Down” offends those who assume that all hunting surges from blood lust. But we also love our forests and realize a balance must be struck.
#b#Culling the Herd#/b#
Brian Kubin estimates he has fed 5,000 people in this past year. Professionally, he works at the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Among other tasks, he stocks the Garden State’s streams with trout and her fields with pheasant. But during dawn and dusk, about 100 days a year, Kubin goes deer hunting.
A native of Ewing from a hunting family, Kubin has been an active recreational hunter for the last 33 of his 41 years. From the opening of Fall Bow season on September 9, right to Winter Bow’s close on February 18, Kubin would make forays into the forest.
Eight years ago Kubin accelerated his recreation into a passionate mission. As an outdoorsman, he loved the forests and saw the ruinous destruction caused by the unchecked deer population. He witnessed the rampant Lyme disease, which struck more than 30,000 Americans last year. Kubin became dedicated to harvesting Hopewell Valley’s herd to a manageable size. And no one has done it more effectively. Last year, employing his bow, his Savage 220 slug gun during shotgun season, and a Thompson Center Encore during muzzleloader season, Kubin brought down and tagged 159 deer. The second-most successful New Jersey hunter bagged 46.
As dawn eases over the horizon sending a roseate hue to the underside of low clouds, Kubin is already in place. Rising early, he has donned his hunting clothes, kept separate from street clothes, which reek of human scent. He has walked the line of the preserve, or the property on which he has been invited to hunt. His eyes watchfully follow the deer paths and discern bedding spots. “When you hunt at this level, you view the woods in an entirely different light,” Kubin explains. “Your mind is instinctively searching for food sources deer travel to and places where you can be invisible.”
Bait placement for this hunter has become an art form. “I use a blend of corn and apple, plus a bit of my own secret sauce I mix at home,” says Kubin. “Deer can smell corn under the leaves from 20 yards away. I have seen them come to my bait literally drooling.”
From this spot Kubin determines the hunter’s angle. After sighting from which direction his prey will enter his area, he finds that one tree that will cloak him, affording him a line of sight, yet keeping his form unseen. Here he sets up his portable, elevated stand, giving him a good high vantage point, and he will wait. When the deer arrive, Kubin takes aim just below the shoulder, near the animal’s vital organs. Ideally, his shot will hit the lungs and the deer will instantly drop.
“It’s not like my recreational days, Kubin says. “I’ve got to always find better strategies — better ways to manage my time.” Today he will be hoping to take two or three deer. On a few days he has taken five. This hunter cannot afford to have his one prize slowly circle and tentatively place itself in position. He must manipulate the stage so the prey come swiftly in and are swiftly dispatched, allowing him to repeat the process.
At day’s end, he drives across the Delaware and delivers his kills to his favorite butcher. Most all the deer harvested by Kubin are donated to Hunters Sharing The Harvest (www.sharedeer.org). Launched in 1992, this Pennsylvania-based charity connects hunters with sponsor-supported butchers who distribute their meat among 5,000 area food banks. A 120-pound deer will butcher up to about 55 pounds of venison. Last year the HSH provided more than 200,000 meals to those living at risk of hunger. Kubin prefers HSH to NJ Fish & Wildlife’s Hunters Helping the Hungry, which asks for a butchering contribution from hunters who donate their deer.
For Van Clef and most deer-herd managers, the solution is to have more hunters like Brian Kubin. Celebrating his 10th year on Hopewell’s Deer Management Advisory Committee, Van Clef is giving recreational hunters a sharp nudge to be more informed and effective. Deer-plagued farmers may now file for agricultural depredation permits, allowing for limitless shotgun deer hunting of both sexes. Hopewell Township has developed a Private Lands Stewardship Program that allows private property owners to invite seasoned hunters onto their land to safely manage the deer overpopulation.
Working with the Mercer County Parks Commission, Van Clef supports and advises facilitated deer hunts. In an area such as Baldpate Mountain Park a limited number of seasoned hunters may apply for hunt permits for a select portion of the deer season. Any hunter who harvests at least four doe gets 50 percent off his $100 permit fee. If she harvests 10 or more antlerless deer, her permit fee is waived for next year. If you fail to bag two deer, you will not be invited back.
“Reducing the number of hunters and giving them a competitive incentive makes them actually more productive,” says Van Clef. “In some areas during the season, we had 65 hunters harvesting 35 deer. Now by cutting that number of hunters in half, we have actually doubled their total take.”
Professional sharpshooters have willingly and effectively gotten into the deer management business and are seen as a fast, if costly resort. Last year, the town of Princeton paid the Connecticut-based White Buffalo company $64,530 to cull its deer herd by hopefully 150 animals. Each of the firm’s sharpshooters, working at night, were to take one to two deer each hunt. This was part of a joint effort with local hunters to reach a 20-deer-per-square-mile herd. “It can be an effective tool for a place like Princeton in which most of its huntable property is municipal land. With so much private land in Hopewell, it’s not really viable,” notes Van Clef. Then, there is the price tag. Estimates for professional deer hunting range from $200 to $700 per animal brought down.
So in the end is all this advanced hunting and management actually holding or diminishing our state’s rampantly overpopulated deer herd? “We have truly had our victories,” says Van Clef proudly. “In Hopewell we have held the population steady and actually cut it back in several areas. And when I walk Baldpate Mountain, I look at the once barren spots and now see all the native wildflowers in profusion, I know we are, however slowly, working our way back to healthy forests.”