The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife has control over 122 preserved wildlife management areas, or WMAs as they are called. The division is a part of the state Department of Environmental Protection and controls activities on 353,474 acres of land in all 21 counties historically used for hunting and fishing.
Starting in 1932, the lands were initially preserved for hunting and fishing and their management is funded through fees for hunting and fishing licenses and the Duck Stamp. However, over the years, the role of the lands has expanded to provide a wide range of recreational and educational activities, while still protecting and enhancing the natural resources.
To enhance funding to protect these wild areas, the division saw the need to study who is using the areas and for what outdoor activity.
To that end, from April 1, 2016 to June 30 2018, the division conducted brief in-person surveys of people using WMAs and collected information on users’ activities but also their opinion of habitat management practices and other issues. In addition to gathering information, the report provided recommendations to help guide future management decisions.
The division contracted with Stockton University’s Environmental Science Program and its School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics to compile the report.
Besides conducting interviews with users in the field, the division also invited focus groups to comment. The agency wanted to know if the lands are primarily being used by hunters and fishermen or by so-called non-consumptive users – those who do not take wildlife from the environment.
All non-consumptive users – birders, hikers, bikers, photographers, kayakers and cross-country skiers – were asked if they would consider paying a fee to use WMAs, which would help with the maintenance of the land.
The survey took opinions from 1,986 people at 107 WMAs. Also received were 52 comments from both Fish and Wildlife people and other focus group members.
It was found that a majority of those surveyed (53 percent) were participating in non-consumptive activities and were amiable to pay a fee to improve management of the system.
The biggest perceived threat to WMAs was off-road vehicle damage and the greatest need for improvement was increased trash receptacles and removal.
According to the executive summery, the division could improve access and potential funding from user fees through education and outreach programs, better online information, clear maps developing social media outlets to recruit Friends and cleanup groups to support the agency or an individual WMA.
Among the study’s recommendations are increasing current license fees, implementing a voluntary habitat stamp program, and imposing access fees for high-use WMAs and parking areas.
Locally, the Forked River Mountain Coalition exists to preserve the 1,493 acres of the Forked River Mountains in Waretown. Other nearby WMAs include Great Bay Boulevard consisting of 5,982 acres of saltwater marsh in Tuckerton, Stafford Forge and its 11,925 acres of pinelands and defunct cranberry bog impoundments, the 1,780 acres of upland and saltwater marsh called the Bridge to Nowhere in Manahawkin, plus the 192 acres of sedge islands.
The report also stated that trends of wildlife-related activities across the U.S, has changed significantly over the last 40 years, shifting away from hunting. The percentage of anglers and wildlife watchers increased 19 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016; the percentage of hunters declined by 8 percent.
— Pat Johnson