Deer Management Program - Restoring Balance to New Jersey's Forests

Oak Seedlings for FoHVOS Deer Management Program
350 Red oak seedlings - ready for planting.

Most of them will be dead in six months.  Sacrificed in the name of science, researchers and volunteers plant these young oaks (a favorite snack of deer) and later count how many have been browsed, or eaten.  They are the 'sentinel seedlings' of the Deer Management Program (DMP) here at Baldpate Mountain and other preserves of FoHVOS.

In a healthy forest ecosystem, deer would browse 5% of oak seedlings within six months.[1]  But currently being overpopulated, deer browse anywhere from 25% on the best sites to as high as 85% on the worst, according to Michael Van Clef, Ph.D, FoHVOS stewardship director.  This research is one half of the DMP: measuring herd size.  It helps inform the DMP's other half: recruiting hunters to reduce it.  Overall the project's purpose is to protect native vegetation from overbrowsing and ultimately restore balance to New Jersey's forests.

Planting Oak Seedlings for FoHVOS Deer Management Program

Impact of Deer Overpopulation
Deer are the region's largest herbivores, as well as an "engineer" species, meaning their selective browsing determines plant composition and shapes the wider ecosystem.  "Herds can eat some plants out of existence" while leaving others to thrive[2], which can:
  • Prevent the regeneration of forests, due to their preference for tree seedlings.
  • Exacerbate the spread of non-native invasives that are unpalatable to deer.   
  • Affect the populations of other animals by shaping their habitats or food sources -- a cascade of effects.
Michael Van Clef and Beth Craighead of FoHVOS Deer Management Program
Planting seedlings with Michael Van Clef and Beth Craighead of FoHVOS.

The causes of overpopulation
are mostly related to human development over the past few centuries.   Lawns and fields create more "edges" (i.e. interfaces between woods and meadows) where deer and their food thrive.  Most of all, we've displaced their traditional predators, such as wolves, cougars and Native Americans.  Past hunting restrictions or the tendency to hunt only bucks (does increase population) perpetuated the imbalance.[3]  Down from the late 90's when the problem peaked, the estimated population is currently 125,000 in New Jersey. [4]

Photo credit: NJ DEP Division of Fish and Wildlife

Because the restoration of predators seems unlikely in New Jersey, the responsibility of maintaining ecosystem balance falls on us.[5]  "Many people oppose hunting because deer are cute and fuzzy, but we have to look at the bigger picture," said Beth Craighead.  To help restore that bigger picture, FoHVOS issues hunting permits to selected hunters.  According to Michael:
We seek 'management hunters' (they are particularly skilled and dedicated to hunting -- and don't allow antlerless deer to pass them while they wait for a buck....) as opposed to 'recreational hunters'.  If harvest quotas are not met, then hunters are not invited to stay in the program.  We aim to harvest 2 antlerless deer per 5 acres of huntable land on all of our preserves.
Preparing oak seedlings for FoHVOS Deer Management Program
Preparing the seedlings, with a tag and a trim.

Planting oak seedlings for FoHVOS Deer Management Program
Seedlings planted in plots of 10, two rows of five. 

Locating test plots for FoHVOS Deer Management Program
Plots selected randomly on a grid throughout the preserve.
So how have the sentinel seedlings faired over the program's 8 years?  While success has varied from reserve to reserve (depending largely on the hunting policies of adjacent lands) overall fewer seedlings are being browsed and native understory plants are recovering.  
  • At Nayfield Preserve, where improvements have been greatest, seedling browse rates have decreased from 62 to 22% and native understory cover has increased from 20 to 36%.
  • Here at Baldpate Mountain Preserve, seedling browse rates have decreased from 59 to 21% and native understory cover has increased from 20 to 28%.

For more info on the Deer Management Program or FoHVOS reserves contact them here.

For another restoration project in the great state of New Jersey, see Cranberry Bog Restoration in the Pine Barrens.

[1] "Forest Health Monitoring Program," Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Spaces. [link]
[2] "Wildlife Populations: White-tailed Deer," NJDEP Division of Science, Research and Environmental Health. [pdf link]
[3] Brooke Maslo and Samantha Wehman, "An Overview of White-tailed Deer Status and Management in New Jersey," Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station. [link]
[4] "Deer Facts," New Jersey Deer Control, LLC. [link]
[5] Kate Mishkin, "Bringing Back Cougars could Save N.J. a Few Bucks, Scientists Say," [link]


  1. Good content about deer management program and i think most of the educators are like this type of education in here. They have more interested about this and they want to hunt more deer in here easily.

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