Cheesequake deer hunt starts amid safety concerns

Residents question lack of public notice, hearings

Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — Bow hunting has begun at Cheesequake State Park amid strong concerns from residents and local officials.

The hunt aims to reduce an extremely dense deer population in the park that is threatening the future of the forest, park Superintendent David Donnelly said during an information meeting Sept. 4.

Research shows that there are currently 200 deer in the approximately 2.5- square-mile park, Donnelly said. Scientific data, he said, recommends that Cheesequake State Park should have no more than 25 deer in its borders.

“We have to control the numbers,” Donnelly said. “Too many deer in a park threaten the well-being of other plants and animals. We have to take action.”

Having a variety of trees and plants at different ages is important in a forest, Donnelly explained. For every 80-yearold tree, there should be a 60-year-old tree behind it and a 40-year-old tree behind that all the way down to a sapling, he said.

But the massive deer population threatens this succession, as deer will nip at baby trees, stunting their growth, eat low-lying branches of grown trees and kill small trees by rubbing their antlers against their bark.

These actions, Donnelly said, could spell major problems for Cheesequake State Park. A lack of trees and other vegetation could lead to erosion and soilmanagement problems. Once native plants are consumed or dead, other deerresistant plants will come in to replace them, which in turn threatens the ecosystem of the park, he said.

As such, Donnelly said the bow hunt was necessary to help control the deer population in the park. The goal for this season’s deer bow hunt, which began Sept. 10 and has no set end-date, is to reduce the park’s population by a minimum of 50 deer and a maximum of 100 deer, and then evaluate the program for next year.

Fifty bow hunters received permits this year, he said.

With soil problems already occurring in the wake of Hurricane Irene, Donnelly said the hunt is necessary to assure that future generations get to enjoy the park.

Donnelly said he hopes that “we haven’t waited too long.”

But Old Bridge Mayor Patrick Gillespie and other residents expressed safety concerns with a hunt in a small and popular park with so many houses surrounding the area, and the Garden State Parkway running through it.

Gillespie said he understands the need for hunting and to control the deer population. But Gillespie said he was worried about the safety issues that could occur with having hunters and other members of the public in the park at the same time.

“I think the park should simply be closed that day,” Gillespie said to applause from the dozens at the meeting. “Let the hunters have the run of the park.”

He also said that residents should be provided adequate notice for the hunt. Just as land use applications require residents within 200 feet to be notified of construction and permits, Gillespie said the park should notify residents in Cheesequake Village and on nearby roads that a hunt is going on.

Patty Swetits also expressed strong worries over safety in the park. While 38 other state parks and forests allow deer hunting, Swetits said Cheesequake State Park is much smaller and poses many unique safety concerns.

“I don’t have a problem with people hunting, and I know we have to do something to control this deer population,” Swetits said. “But to allow people in here at the same time as hunters are here, you are setting up a liability for the state.”

Larry Ragonese, the press information director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that closing Cheesequake State Park during the hunt would not be practical. Even if the main vehicle entrance to the park were closed, Ragonese said many people come in at other areas of the park, and keeping them from entering would be extremely difficult.

“An official park closure would not be effective,” he said. “It would be virtually impossible to enforce.”

Donnelly said safety concerns were taken into account when organizing the hunt. Permits were granted only to licensed hunters and, as such, each will have gone through a safety-training course, Donnelly said.

Hunters will not be allowed within 450 feet of buildings or structures, he said, and will have access to the park early in the morning, limiting their contact with the general public.

Hunting will not be allowed on Sundays, he said.

Professionals also will be on hand to monitor the hunt, Ragonese added, and signs will be placed around the park to alert visitors of the hunt.

But other residents also questioned the transparency of the decision to hold a bow hunt, saying the general public did not receive proper notification and public hearings were not held to gauge public opinion on the matter.

“I don’t believe any state agency should make a decision that affects the public without apprising the public of what is about to happen,” said Paul Kimmel, an Old Bridge resident. “I am not standing here opposed to hunters … but I think this was conducted very poorly. There was no input from the hunters, no input from the general public.”