N.J. town moving deer to new home

Officials seek to avoid problems connected with killing the animals

April 23, 2000|By New York Times News Service

MILLBURN, N.J. -- Like many of their neighbors across the suburbs, the people of Millburn have had it with Bambi.

They are sick of deer eating their garbage, tomato plants and azaleas. They associate deer more with Lyme disease and highway collisions than with the wonders of nature. Last year, town workers picked up 100 battered carcasses from local roads, double the number of a decade ago.

"They've become a major safety hazard," said Judith Kramer, a lawyer who lives in the town's Short Hills section. "I've seen a school of them cross my street. What about the children? What about my dog, Breezy? What if he tries to go after them and gets hurt?"

But unlike other places where hunters or hired sharpshooters cull the herds, Millburn is taking a costly, though far less volatile approach to the problem. If all goes according to plan, dozens of deer will be traveling by trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike later this month, heading to a temporary home on an upstate New York farm.

What happens to them after that is unclear. The man orchestrating their removal, Mark MacNamara, a deer handling specialist, said some may end up in zoos and some as breeders for venison farms. Others could go to the slaughterhouse. New York state law prevents any from being released into the wild.

'A social problem'

Millburn officials admit that exporting deer out of state may sound extravagant, but the alternative is far less palatable. "We don't want to have troubles," said Timothy Gordon, the town administrator, referring to the strife that has engulfed other places that proposed lethal means for controlling deer.

As one of the region's wealthiest communities, Millburn can afford to spend $20,000 to battle overpopulation without inciting civil war. Bob Lund, who directs the state's Community Based Deer Management Program, said there were 40 or so New Jersey towns tearing each other apart over hunting. "Deer overpopulation has become a social problem, not a biological one," he said.

In the meantime, as the herds grow, the weak and old starve and the less nimble meet their deaths on the grilles of sport utility vehicles. Last year, he said, about 20,000 deer were killed by cars in New Jersey.

Millburn is the first municipality to try moving out its unwanted deer, and Lund confessed a twinge of doubt over whether it would succeed, mostly because of basic arithmetic. Whitetail deer, one of the few species to produce twins and triplets, can replenish their numbers by 40 percent a year, he said.

Still, in interviews with nearly two dozen Millburn residents, most agreed that while far cheaper, hunting was out of the question. "I'd rather just deal with the problem than have them shot," said Jennifer Benenson, 40, who recounted the day she had to stop jogging and halt traffic so a herd of deer could cross busy Wyoming Avenue.

There were, however, a few dissenters. Lena Einhorn, 41, a native of Sweden, called the trapping plan absurd, especially since some of the deer would invariably end up on the menus of restaurants. "I guess it's the American way," she said. "Maybe I'm not so softhearted, but where I come from, deer meat is a delicacy."

'They're beautiful'

Lisa Plavin, 39, a personal trainer, said she thought the deer should just be left alone. "We're the ones destroying their habitat," she said. "I happen to think they're beautiful."

MacNamara is racing the biological clock of the does, which begin to give birth in May. To get a sense of how many have to be removed, town officials hired a Colorado-based company to survey the deer population with an infrared camera mounted on a helicopter.

Kim Lewis, the general manager of Hot/Shot Infrared Inspections, said the counting was not finished, but a census last year by Essex County recorded 349 deer in the South Mountain Reservation, 2,000 acres of parkland that borders much of Millburn.

Using figures established by state wildlife officials, Millburn might have to remove two-thirds of the deer to reach a healthy-size herd. To maintain that number, the process will have to be repeated every year.

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