Deer culling plan enters final stage
Pending official approval from the New Jersey Fish and Game Council in December, Princeton Township will begin the last installment of its controversial five-year program to reduce the local deer population, Township Attorney Edwin Schmierer said.
Driven by rising deer-related car accidents, the destruction of forest understories and concerns about the health of the deer population, the Township hired the group White Buffalo to kill the animals. In the four years the policy has been in effect, rifle shooting and a method called net-and-bolt have cut the deer population from 1,500 deer to fewer than 500.
"We should have about 350 [deer], based on what all the biologists tell us," Schmierer said. This plan places approximately 20 deer in each of the Township's 16 square miles.
If the population reaches the ideal level next year, as expected, the Township will discontinue its lethal methods and rely solely on sterilization and some restricted bow hunting to keep the numbers down. Princeton introduced a nonlethal vaccination two years ago to temporarily sterilize the deer following protests from animal activists and other members of the community.
"We'll capture the deer or shoot the deer with a tranquilizer and then they get injected with this contraception," Schmierer said.
After vaccination, White Buffalo equips the deer with radios to track their movement and visibly marks the deer's ears to prevent hunters from shooting them. A permanent switch to sterilization may mark both the end of the five-year program and community protests.
Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Henry Horn noted the program's success "depends an awful lot on how well it's maintained," as the sterilization only lasts five to seven years. Though he and David Breithaupt, chair of the Township's Environmental Commission, remain cautious about the program's possibilities, Schmierer is more optimistic.
"The Township has made available about four of its parks to bow hunting," he said. "The hope is that bow hunting would be able to keep that [deer] population in control together with that contraception, so we wouldn't need White Buffalo after this year."
According to Schmierer, 75 deer — 25 each year — have been marked and sterilized so far.
"On the animals we've been able to locate and the test cases we've followed, it does appear that they're having less new deer," he said.
Renowned ethicist and University professor Peter Singer also expressed his approval of the sterilization method.
"If it is a proper, humane form of sterilization, then yes, that's exactly what we were aiming for," he said, although he added, "I would prefer them to replace all killing with sterilization."
Noting that humans use the same methods when they don't want children, he said sterilization treats animals with respect.
Singer had protested the deer culling, especially the net-and-bolt method he described as "grossly cruel." The procedure calls for White Buffalo to catch the deer in a net and puncture its skull with a fatal bolt.
"You have the net falling over panicking, kicking deer," Singer described, referring to video footage he has seen. "The men run up, and try to hold the deer down to get the captive bolt pistol to the deer's forehead, but that isn't an easy thing to do."
He added that it also takes time for the deer to die.
However, Schmierer defended the practice, which he said White Buffalo only uses in areas where houses are too close together to safely fire rifles.
"It is not in our opinion inhumane," he said. "There will be two or three people from White Buffalo on top of the deer so they don't freak out. They don't wither in pain."
Schmierer added that field representatives from the Fish and Wildlife Council have observed the procedure, which has accounted for 10 percent of the killings, and agreed it is the only practical way to deal with the problem in residential areas.
Breithaupt also approved of the direction the Township has taken. Although he has encouraged investigating nonlethal methods, he agreed sterilization would not have been effective in controlling the deer population on its own.
"There have been a lot of studies that have shown that it will not work, because deer do travel," he said. "You can't just depend on that. You have to cull the deer first."
Horn echoed this concern. "You have removed some of the reproductive potential, but you haven't removed the deer," Horn said. "There's a much greater lag until the deer population is reduced."
This lag hinders recovery in forests where the deer have stripped the lower portions of trees bare. Describing deer as "browsers rather than grazers," Horn explained that trees they do not eat, like the beech and red maple, are now overwhelming preferred trees like the oak.
"One of the things that is bothersome about not killing a deer on ethical grounds is that it's relatively easy to assign an ethical value to an individual deer," he said. "It's when you set the ethical value of one deer against the marginal set of small effects on many other critters and the landscape itself that it gets difficult."
Horn also pointed out the "ethical value" of a relatively diverse forest and fewer car accidents. Accidents have dropped 60 precent since the program began, according to Schmierer.
"[Culling] is a lot less cruel than having a deer get hit by a car," said Breithaupt.
Both Singer and Horn pointed to the lack of natural predators like cougars and wolves, driven out by human development, as the source of the problem.
According to Horn, a reintroduction of such predators would be impossible "in a habitat this firmly devoted to humans," so the Township will have to continue its sterilization process every few years to keep the population down.
"Hopefully, over the years, the strength of the sterilization will be stronger," Schmierer said. "Nobody takes pleasure in killing an animal."