Sharpshooters will take to the trees starting Tuesday in northern New Jersey's South Mountain Reservation to deal with a problem that has become the scourge of many suburban communities: too many deer.
Proponents of the 10-day hunt say the number of white-tailed deer must be reduced because they destroy vegetation, pose a hazard for motorists and spread Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks on the deer.
"What we're doing on Tuesday is not something that I want to do. It is something that we have to do," said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., speaking to reporters and protesters Friday. "We just have too many deer on our property."
The state Department of Environmental Protection and leaders of the four municipalities around the reservation have signed off on the hunt. But animal rights activists have criticized it; they prefer a nonlethal alternative such as contraceptives. And some residents worry the shooting will be too close to homes and businesses.
At a contentious news conference Friday, DiVincenzo and proponents of the hunt laid out the reasons for it and how it would be conducted. Hunt opponents held signs calling for the protection of the animals.
At one point, as a consultant hired by the county described how hunters could shoot young deer, a protester called out, "We call them Bambi!"
The hunt in the 2,000-acre reservation, a picturesque area of woodlands, streams and trails, with views of New York City, is scheduled to start Tuesday and continue every Tuesday and Thursday through Feb. 28. A team of 15 volunteer hunters who've gone through a special training course will be allowed to shoot deer from perches in trees.
In preparation for the hunt, corn has already been laid at areas near the tree perches as bait.
Notices warning residents about the hunt have been mailed out, and DiVincenzo has been meeting with residents in the communities bordering the reservation to address safety concerns.
On hunt days, roads going in to the reservation will be closed. Hunters must stay at least 450 feet from any residences and shoot in a downward direction so errant shots hit the ground.
The deer population has grown so much that deer are chewing through all of the underbrush in the reservation and destroying people's gardens and lawns in areas bordering the preserve, DiVincenzo said. Unless the herd is soon culled, many may starve, he added.
Population in hundreds, 60 said sustainable
The preserve can sustain about 60 deer, but an estimated 300-400 deer were living in the reservation, DiVincenzo said. Opponents of the hunt say the number is much less.
Carol Rivelli, who carried a large red sign reading "Save South Mountain Preservation," said more emphasis should be placed on nonlethal methods. She also questioned the hunt's safety.
"I live right next to the reservation, and safety and danger are my main concern," Rivelli said.
Seven New Jersey municipalities applied for permits to cull deer during the 2007-2008 season, said DEP spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas. Municipalities that demonstrate deer are damaging the environment or becoming a hazard for vehicles can apply to have a controlled hunt.