Sharpshooters target deer in NJ hunt

January 29, 2008 4:52:43 AM PST

Proponents of the hunt in the South Mountain Reservation say it's necessary to protect the forests from ravenous deer that are destroying the vegetation. But, in the most densely-populated state in the nation, the prospect of sharpshooters in a nature preserve that borders hundreds of homes has some residents worried and animal rights activists angry.

The 10-day hunt is scheduled to take place each Tuesday and Thursday through Feb. 28. At any one time, up to 12 specially trained hunters will be positioned in trees throughout the roughly 3-square-mile preserve, an oasis of woodlands, streams and trails surrounded by a sea of suburban towns.

The hunters are scheduled to work from dawn to 8 or 9 a.m. and again in the late afternoon until dusk. The rules require them to set up a minimum of 450 feet from nearby homes and shoot downward to prevent danger from stray bullets.

"The residents of our county will hear shooting, and there is no reason to panic," said Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr.

The goal is to kill 150 deer, which county officials say not only strip the forest but also spread Lyme disease and pose a hazard for drivers.

DiVincenzo said the preserve can sustain about 60 deer, but estimated 300-400 were living in the reservation.

Inside a two-story house near the preserve's eastern border in Maplewood, Cynthia Thompson said she believes there are enough measures in place that the hunt - which she feels is necessary - will be safe.

"We have deer in the front yard, and deer in the back yard," Thompson said. "They are clearly hungry if they come down this far."

But one house down, Ann Leenay, who has three children, said she's terrified that a stray bullet could hurt someone.

"I feel scared and appalled," she said. "I just feel like it's really scary."

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.

Seven municipalities applied for permits to cull deer during the 2007-08 season, under the DEP's Community-Based Deer Management Program, said DEP spokeswoman Darlene Yuhas. Municipalities can have a controlled hunt if they demonstrate that deer are damaging the environment or becoming a hazard.