Annual deer management program to commence in South Mountain, Hilltop reservations

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. recently outlined plans for the 2023 Essex County deer management program in South Mountain and Hilltop reservations. This is the 13th time the program is being held and first time in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is geared toward revitalizing the forest ecology by reducing the number of deer.

“Controlling the population by removing deer from South Mountain and Hilltop has proven to be very successful in helping to preserve the forest habitat and maintain our reservations as viable resources for recreation and open space. Each year, we have updated our program to address current conditions, adjusting the number and schedule of days and transitioning into a ‘maintenance mode’ to keep the population at a manageable level,” DiVincenzo said. “This is just one facet of our comprehensive deer management program, that also includes creating seed banks to accelerate the regrowth of the forests and installing reflectors and lights to enhance traffic safety by keeping deer from entering the roadway.”

The program will be held in South Mountain Reservation on Tuesdays, Jan. 10, 17, 24 and 31 and Feb. 7 and 14. In the event any dates are canceled, makeup days will be on Tuesdays, Feb. 21 or 28. The program will be held in Hilltop Reservation on Thursdays, Jan. 12, 19 and 26 and Feb. 2, 9 and 16. In the event any days are canceled, makeup days will be on Thursdays, Feb. 23 or March 2. South Mountain Reservation is located in Maplewood, Millburn and West Orange, and Hilltop Reservation is in Cedar Grove, North Caldwell and Verona. The program will not be held in Eagle Rock Reservation.

Since 2008, a total of 2,817 deer — 1,774 deer and 1,043 unborn deer — have been removed utilizing the services of experienced and qualified marksmen who volunteer their time. They are licensed by the state of New Jersey and have demonstrated their marksmanship ability and completed an orientation program with the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs and the Essex County Sheriff’s Office. When in the reservations, the agents station themselves in trees at least 20 feet above the ground and only take shots at a downward angle.

To maximize safety, South Mountain Reservation, Hilltop Reservation, Cedar Grove Park, and all parking areas and walking paths inside the reservations will be closed to the public on the days the program is held in that specific reservation. Turtle Back Zoo, Codey Arena, the Essex County Park-N-Ride facility and McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant in the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange and all county roads through the reservations will remain open. The Essex County Sheriff’s Office will coordinate safety patrols with local police departments.

All deer removed from the reservations are inspected and information about their age, reproductive status, gender and weight, as well as the number of shots fired is collected. They are transported by the county to a N.J. Department of Health–approved butcher for processing. Venison is donated to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside, which distributes the meat to the needy and homeless. Since 2008, more than 47,075 pounds of venison have been donated to the food bank, which equates to more than 168,000 meals. Volunteer marksmen who complete at least seven half-day shifts of volunteer service will receive 40 pounds of venison.

In addition to culling the deer herd, an aggressive replanting program to accelerate the regrowth of the forests is being undertaken in South Mountain and Eagle Rock reservations. Forty-seven enclosures — 42 in South Mountain and five in Eagle Rock — have been installed where native vegetative species have been planted so their seeds can be reintroduced into the area. The 8-foot-tall fences are designed to prevent deer and other large animals from foraging on the planted areas, but allow smaller animals, such as rodents and birds, to enter and exit. The fences will remain in place for about 25 years. The planting project was funded with grants from the N.J. Green Acres program received by the South Mountain and Eagle Rock conservancies and grants from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund.

Replanting native plant species is necessary to restore the forest understory that was being destroyed by the overbrowsing of deer. The loss of this vegetation has prevented new trees from growing, created erosion problems, allowed invasive plant species to flourish and caused the number of native animal species that rely on the plants for food or protection to decline.

The third aspect of the deer management program is enhancing safety on county roads by reducing the number of motor vehicle accidents involving deer. Through a pilot program with the N.J. Department of Transportation, Essex County received grant money to install detection devices that reflect motor vehicle headlights and emit a high-pitched noise to scare deer away from the road when cars approach. The reflectors are installed along Cherry Lane, Brookside Drive, JFK Parkway and Parsonage Hill Road in Millburn, Livingston and West Orange.