UNION COUNTY, NJ — Following a record harvest during last year’s hunt, the freeholders have again allocated funding for deer hunts — by both shotgun and bow — at eight county parks in 14 municipalities.

The freeholder board on Thursday approved the $20,815 allocation to conduct the 2019-2020 Deer Management Program for Union County. Freeholders approved the resolution with no public discussion. The measure authorizes the county manager to close park areas where the hunts are slated to occur.

The hunts will include both a season of shotgun hunting and a season of bow hunting, Sebastian D’Elia, spokesman for the county, said. The specific dates of the hunts had not be set as of Friday but, D’Elia said, the hunters will follow a similar schedule to that which they followed last year.

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“We are currently considering reducing the days for bow hunting,” D’Elia said. “We are, right now, working on the final plan.”

Hunters in Union County killed 202 deer during the last 34-day season of shotgun hunting held January and February, and bow hunters harvested 124 deer during the five Sundays designated for their hunts in those months, he said.

The 202 deer killed by shotgun marked the largest number harvested by that method in Union County in the last six years during which the county has recorded harvest numbers, D’Elia said.

“The highest number in the last six years we had recorded was 144 deer,” he said. “There was an explosion in the population.”

Union County is not alone in seeing this trend. Statewide, hunters harvested 50,861 deer in the 2018-19 hunting season, marking the largest number of deer killed in the state in one season since the 2014-15 hunting season during which hunters took 52,704 deer, figures from the state Division of Fish & Wildlife show.

While last year’s bow hunt marked the first time in recent history organized bow hunters targeted deer in Union County, D’Elia said that method has been carried out successfully in other parts of New Jersey.

“Bowhunting is one of the safest ways to hunt,” he said. “They’ve done it throughout the rest of the state.”

In Plainfield, city officials last year approved an eight-day bow hunt during which hunters bagged 10 deer at the Cushing Road Retention Basin. It did not happen without controversy. While city officials said the hunt would reduce deer-related traffic crashes, tick-borne disease and help keep deer from gobbling up the forest understory, the Animal Initiative Committee of Plainfield quickly called for an end to the deer cull.

The Borough of Mountain Lakes and Princeton Township are also among municipalities to use members of a bowhunting organization to cull deer on municipal properties during the regular bowhunting seasons, the state Division of Fish & Wildlife says on its website.

Animal rights activists, however, have cried foul.

Margaret Southwell, a resident of Fanwood who runs the Facebook page Friends of Watchung Reservation, expressed concern this week on learning from a reporter that the Union County Freeholders had approved a program of bowhunting.

Southwell said that while deer eating native plant species can allow for invasive plants to take over the forest understory, but she does not believe bow hunting is the best solution.

“Bowhunting is especially cruel because the arrow is not an instant kill,” Southwell said. “Bowhunting should not be allowed. The more deer are killed, the more they reproduce.”

The Fanwood resident is not alone with her concerns about bowhunting.

When the Union County Freeholders approved bow hunting last year, they got an earful from concerned residents. The public turned out at a freeholder meeting last September — several months after the board had approved funding for the hunt — to voice concern.

People then expressed concern for the 100-day length that a permit would have allowed hunting for, the meeting minutes show. As it turned out, the hunts were scheduled for five Sundays in January and February.

“There were some residents who had some concerns about it and expressed those concerns,” D’Elia said. “But there were no issues with the archery hunt.”

The board’s Thursday approval authorizes the reduction of white-tailed deer in the following locations:

Watchung Reservation located in Berkeley Heights, Scotch Plains, Springfield, Mountainside, Watchung and Summit
Lenape Park and Nomehegan Park, located in Cranford, Springfield, Union, Kenilworth and Westfield
Passaic River Park, the approval is for the portion of the park located in Summit
Ash Brook Reservation in Clark and Scotch Plains
Oak Ridge Park in Clark and Edison
Hawk Rise Sanctuary, a municipally-owned property in Linden
Elizabeth River Park, the approval is for the portion in Hillside

Reporter Roman Chairello contributed to this story. Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh