On a hilltop with breathtaking views of New York's skyscrapers, sharpshooters perched in trees took aim Tuesday at white-tailed deer, a species that is being crowded out of one of the country's most densely populated areas.
The problem is common enough in New Jersey's suburbs, as it is in other communities that have brought in professionals to thin the herd: When their numbers get too great, the gentle animals destroy the forest, spread Lyme disease and pose a hazard for drivers.
But perhaps nowhere else have the hired guns been so close to so many people as they are on the South Mountain Reservation, a nature preserve that borders hundreds of high-priced homes.
"I could come out on my deck and get shot," said Sharon McClenton, a 42-year-old teacher whose house in West Orange butts up against the preserve.
Officials and many other residents insist, to the consternation of animal rights activists, that the hunt is necessary.
"There are clearly too many deer for this environment to handle," said Michael Jaffe, 65, who normally walks through the reservation with his dog Charlie.
On Tuesday morning, the two were forced to stroll the side streets bordering the scenic preserve because it was closed for Essex County's first deer hunt.
The 10-day hunt will take place each Tuesday and Thursday through Feb. 28. Up to a dozen specially trained hunters at a time will be positioned in trees throughout the roughly 3-square-mile preserve, an oasis of woodlands, streams and trails.
The territory is surrounded by a sea of upscale, suburban towns where the architecture is a mix of colonials, Tudor-style, and Queen Anne-style houses and mansions situated on tree-filled lots — many of which have back yards looking into the reservation.
The hunters went out before dawn, came down by 9 a.m. and were to head back out in the late afternoon, taking advantage of the animals' feeding times.
The rules require them to set up a minimum of 450 feet — a football field and a half — from nearby homes and shoot downward to prevent stray bullets.
Those measures didn't make McClenton feel any safer as she waited Tuesday for her pre-dawn bus to the New York City school where she teaches second-graders. She questioned whether the hunt was necessary.
"I haven't seen an abundance of deer, quite honestly," she said.
Goal to cull 150
County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., who has pushed for the hunt, said the preserve can sustain about 60 deer, but estimated 300-400 were living there. The goal is to kill about 150 of them.
"The residents of our county will hear shooting, and there is no reason to panic," he said.
DiVincenzo said 13 deer were killed Tuesday morning on a total of 15 shots.
"It worked perfectly," he said. "There were no incidents whatsoever."
Throughout the hunt, the meat from the kills — Tuesday morning's shoot alone produced about 2,000 servings of venison — will be donated to needy families, officials said.
Essex County, which includes Newark, has about 6,300 people per square mile, making it the state's second-most densely populated after neighboring Hudson County, according to 2000 census figures.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and leaders of the four municipalities around the reservation — Maplewood, Millburn, South Orange and West Orange — all signed off on the hunt.
Deer, which can rapidly reproduce, have been an issue in many New Jersey communities and other parts of the country where development has pushed out predators.
Animal rights activists call the culling barbaric, and say officials should explore other methods such as contraception to control the animals' numbers. Authorities used to trap the deer and then move them out of the preserve, DiVincenzo said, but many deer would die in transit and fewer places wanted to take the animals.
Bob McCoy, Chair of the Maplewood Environmental Advisory Committee, a group of citizens which advises the town on environmental issues, said there's no proven deer contraception, and until one is found, the hunts will be necessary.
"We have no illusion that it's going to be a short-term thing," McCoy said. "It's going to go on forever."