Controlling deer in NJ Nat'l Historical Park no easy task

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Park looks at shooting to control deer

Animal-rights groups oppose tactic to thin herd at Jockey Hollow

June 06, 2002

BY BILL SWAYZE, Star-Ledger Staff

Michael Henderson, head of the Morristown National Historical Park, knows the park has a problem with deer. Now, the problem is how to get rid of them.

The white-tail deer herd's taste for native tree seedlings and plants is ruining the forest at the 1,320-acre Jockey Hollow in Harding, Morris and Mendham townships, and Henderson is considering turning to sharpshooting to thin the herd. The sharpshooters would be park rangers.
   
But that might not be so easy.

While many national parks allow hunting, only one -- Gettysburg National Military Park -- has been able to thin its herd by using rangers as sharpshooters. And that was after a long legal battle with animal-rights advocates.

"There will have to be a compelling reason (at Jockey Hollow), and there is a rigorous process. It's a hard case to make," said Mary Foley, a chief scientist at the park service's Boston office.

"You can expect a fight," added Mike Coffey, a park service wildlife program manager who heads the system's national white-tail deer team out of Ft. Collins, Colo. "You can expect to be sued and go to court."

Henderson hopes to avoid tangling with animal-rights groups, but knows it's likely.

"The decision will not be made without significant public input, but this is what we are thinking: Sharpshooting is the most tried and proven and inexpensive method," Henderson said. "We want to have a healthy forest. We know the woods are changing, and we know that deer browsing is contributing to that."

Already, Henderson has opponents.

"We are totally against killing deer, and we would oppose that," said Marilyn Johnson, a member of the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, which has unsuccessfully tried to stop hunts in other public places.

Over the past 20 years, the state's white-tail deer population has doubled to an estimated 200,000, and finding a way to control its growth has led to hunts in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Lewis Morris Park, a Morris County park next to Jockey Hollow.

Henderson's idea to trim the deer herd would be part of a new forest management plan for the Morristown National Historical Park, which includes Jockey Hollow, the site of three Revolutionary War winter encampments; the Ford Mansion, where Gen. George Washington had his winter headquarters in 1779-80; and Fort Nonsense, overlooking downtown Morristown.

Unless there is a broad public outcry against the use of sharpshooters, Henderson says he will push for lethal means and follow the game plan Gettysburg park officials used in 1995.

At Gettysburg, the deer population soared to more than 450 per square mile of forest. The issue was the focus of an environmental impact study in 1995, which said the deer were destroying the forest and crops.

Several options were considered, including the capture and relocation of deer, sterilization, public hunting and having rangers shoot deer to cull the herd.

Shooting was the park's recommended choice and, for the next three years, after the park closed for the night between October and March, rangers handled their new duties.

But in 1997, a local group of citizens and three national animal- rights organizations sued in federal court. The battle lasted three years before the park system won the right to continue the practice because it conducted an environmental impact study and followed federal rules.

Park officials say the sharpshooting has whittled the deer population to 49 per square mile of forest this year at Gettysburg.

The deer population at Jockey Hollow is between 60 and 80 per square mile, but park officials want that number to drop to 20, park biologist Bob Masson said, noting the deer impact everywhere in the park.

"If this trend continues, there will be less types of species of native trees and plants. We would not get that younger generation of trees, and the forest would look different than when Washington saw it," Masson said.

Henderson said Morristown, like Gettysburg, will have to look at all the alternatives, including birth control, which was the focus of a two-year study in 1998. The study found birth control could be effective. But the study also found contraception was labor-intensive. It could cost the park upwards of $100,000 a year.

Foley said the use of contraception is permitted only in research, not for deer management. Public hunting is not being considered an option.


Bill Swayze covers Morristown. He can be reached a wswayze@starledger.com or (973) 539-7910.
 

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