Most hikers in Princeton have by now encountered warning signs posted at various preserves, giving notice that it's bow hunting season. The season runs from September to February, and is limited to a select group of skilled hunters vetted by the town. They use elevated deer blinds located away from trails, so there should be no risk of errant arrows. The warning is useful for encouraging people to keep themselves and their dogs on the trails.
As a botanist helping to manage habitats in Princeton, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to manage the deer population. The deer prefer to eat native plant species, and too many deer leads to a decimation of the native flora. Into the void come nonnative plant species--stiltgrass, honeysuckle, winged euonymus, privet, etc.--that the deer reject. Over time, Princeton's preserved lands become increasingly inedible to the very wildlife the land is intended to sustain.
A 2018 article
in NJ.com summarizes the dilemma. It mentions how Princeton gained national attention when passionate protests arose soon after the township hired professional hunters in 2000. Amateur hunting had not proved sufficient. An ecologist is quoted in the paper, raising the central point that the biggest human intervention was not hunting, but instead the extirpation of predators like wolves and cougars. Then, when deer hunting was also banned in 1972, the deer population began to explode.
The resulting imbalance is analogous to what Rachel Carson describes when reckless use of pesticides began wiping out the predators that had until then held insect numbers in balance. She describes predators as "critically important," because they contribute to the "resistance of the environment" that helps keep populations in check. She also speaks of the "truly explosive power of a species to reproduce once the resistance of the environment has been weakened." High numbers of deer are due less to having been displaced from their traditional habitat than simply through their capacity to reproduce, and a lack of checks that would otherwise keep them in balance with the carrying capacity of the land.
Unless people want to bring back predators like wolves and cougars, it is up to us to fill the void in predators we ourselves have created.
The traumatic learning curve Princeton has gone through over the past 20 years is analogous to what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold experienced a century ago. Born in 1887, Leopold earned a forestry degree and was soon writing management plans for preserved federal lands out west. An extraordinary documentary of his life and legacy, Green Fire, tells of how he at first believed that killing wolves and other predators out west would create a hunter's paradise. Instead, the absence of predators led to severe habitat degradation as surging numbers of elk ate vegetation down to stubble.
Leopold was a contemporary of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, who donated Princeton's first nature preserve back in 1957, and I wondered if Leopold might have influenced the Veblens in their founding efforts to preserve land in town. Leopold bought the land in Wisconsin later made famous by his book, the Sand County Almanac, around the same time the Veblens were acquiring land in Princeton. The parallels caused me to search for Leopold's name in the fabulous online resource, Papers of Princeton.
What popped up was not a visit by Leopold to Princeton, but instead references to Leopold in past discussions about controlling deer numbers in town. In 1987--100 years after his birth--and again in 1998, Aldo Leopold's name is used to lend weight to arguments in favor of using hunting to bring down the burgeoning numbers of deer and related automobile accidents.
What we learn from this history is how long and hard the fight has been to get a town to collectively acknowledge truths that were known a century ago, and surely long before then by others possessing the knowledge and keen observation skills of an Aldo Leopold or a Rachel Carson.
Reading the 1987 article
was also a chance to witness some of the dedicated environmentalists of Princeton in action. Tom Poole, whom I knew from working with the Friends of Rogers Refuge, stated at a township meeting:
"In my view it is much more humane to take a deer with a shotgun than with the bumper of a car," Mr. Poole remarked. He added that last August, the Animal Control Officer, Al Heavener, had to kill 23 wounded deer. "He nearly quit his job."
Elizabeth Hutter was another active environmentalist at that meeting, and "traced her feelings about deer, from joy at their proximity to tolerance at the damage, to "annoyance, frustration and anger."
A beautiful letter to the Town Topics, written by Tom Poole in 1998, shows how long has been the road to deer management based on ecological realities. He also mentions in passing the annoyance of leaf blowers, which is only now, 23 years later, beginning to be addressed. Even more extreme in the slowness of progress from awareness of a problem to action to solve it, the threat of climate change was first raised nationally in 1988, but scientists were aware of this most devastating of imbalances long before that, and still there is no coordinated action after all that time. Interestingly, climate change is stymying efforts to control deer populations, since mild winters make it harder to attract deer to feeding stations.
Any success we have at finally stirring action on long-festering problems owes thanks to those who were priming the pump decades ago.
Click on "Read More" to read Tom Poole's letter.