For the first time in the history of the Hilltop Reservation, trained marksmen this week will cull deer in the 200-acre wooded area where parts of Caldwell, Cedar Grove and Verona converge. County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. spearheaded the operation in an attempt to preserve the area for future generations. According to Joyce Goldman, Director of Constituent Services for Essex County, the deer have caused ecological damage to the woods. “They are starving and we are losing vegetation. Mr. DiVincenzo feels it would be irresponsible not to get the population under control.”
Good point but in spite of the logic I couldn’t help feeling a little sad as I watched the deer run freely in the woods yesterday. I hike the Hilltop almost daily with my high-energy dog Mina. Mina runs herself ragged chasing after them and I have developed a sort of kinship with my white-tailed friends. Until recently, it was unusual not to see small groups of four or five deer every day but lately my four-legged friends have been missing in action. Perhaps they sense their days are numbered!
Over the past few weeks, the normally tranquil woods have seen more activity. At the Hilltop entrance in Cedar Grove, trucks and other vehicles have been using the paved roadway to haul supplies to the new residential units under construction in Verona, creating a hazard for joggers, hikers and dog walkers unaccustomed to the traffic. More recently county employees have been in the woods building deer stands and installing bait stations for the upcoming hunt. It’s possible the deer are in hiding.
Twenty volunteer hunters were specially trained to do the job of thinning the deer population. Recently I got a close up look at a metal feeding apparatus as it was being installed high into a tree near one of my favorite trails. The contraption holds corn that when released to the ground attracts hungry deer. When the deer feed, the hunters will take aim.
“The Hilltop hunt will be well controlled,” explains Goldman. “Hunters will be stationed above the ground in deer stands—not roaming around in the woods like you’d see in the movies.”
To insure the safety of people in the homes that line the perimeter of the reservation, hunters will shoot down on the deer and kill them instantly. State law prohibits hunters from being closer than 400 feet from the homes. Goldman says the program has been well publicized in the media and through signage surrounding the area. Residents have received post cards reminding them to stay off the area.
Though a small but vocal group of protesters have attended several meetings leading to the start of today’s deer management program, Goldman says the county is not expecting any protesters today. “In the three years we’ve been culling deer in South Mountain Reservation, we’ve never had a problem with protesters,” Goldman admits, adding that this is America and people are entitled to their opinion.
Goldman couldn’t tell me how many deer will be removed during the next three weeks. “Since this is the first time the county is culling deer on the Hilltop, we don’t know what we’re going to get, though people have reported spotting herds of 40 deer or more.”
Though I still feel for my deer friends, it somehow made me feel a little better to know that the venison meat collected through the program will be used to feed needy families in surrounding communities. Goldman said that last year, 32,000 people were fed through a New Jersey community food bank that serves a variety of non profits.