THINNING THE HERD
Six years ago, when Ramon Bell would climb to the top of his tree stand in Duke Forest and monitor his corn pile bait, he said most deer that crossed paths with his bow and arrow were malnourished. Their ribcages showed. They were covered in parasites.
But since Duke Forest partnered with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and opened portions of its 7,000 acres to hunters, the regulated population control has allowed the white-tailed deer to bulk up, thrive and produce spotted fawns.
Hunters are preparing for Duke Forest’s open season at the end of the month, and North Carolina’s common white-tailed deer are the targets.
This is the sixth hunting season organized by Duke Forest and the commission’s Deer Management Assistance Program to reduce the overabundance of deer that are mowing through the forest vegetation.
The season will span from Sept. 23 to Dec. 13. During that time, the Durham, Korstian and Blackwood divisions of Duke Forest will be closed to the public Monday through Friday for safety, according to the Duke Forest office.
All sections of the forest will be open to the public Saturdays and Sundays and also Nov. 28 and 29 for Thanksgiving.
Hunting within Duke Forest isn’t open to the general public. This year, 67 hunters from both the N.C. Bowhunters Association and a local private hunting group will take to the woods and thin out the herd.
Last year, 60 deer were killed as part of the reduction program. In 2011, hunters nabbed 66 deer and 110 in 2010.
Results from a 2013 deer population survey show that numbers are slightly down, but they are still up from 2011 and 2012, according to the Duke Forest office.
The pre-selected groups met with Duke Forest employees over the summer for hunting orientation, said Sara DiBacco Childs, Duke Forest’s program director.
She said if deer devastate the forest’s vegetation, different wildlife species and their food sources are ultimately affected.
“If you’re looking out from ground level, you can see there is no vegetation in the understory as high up as a deer can reach its head,” Childs said. “It’s literally just cleared.”
The Durham and Korstian division hunters will use bows and arrows, and the Blackwood Division hunters will use both guns and bows to thin the deer herd.
Joey Thompson, the N.C. Bowhunters Association’s records chairman, said members who are involved in the Duke Forest program have gone through the Bowhunter Certification and Referral Service, which means they’ve taken hunter education courses and have exhibited a high level of marksmanship.
“You have to be able to prove to them that you can shoot good enough to be allowed here,” Thompson said.
Bowhunters Association members from all over the state, some traveling from as far as Boone, head to Duke Forest to hunt.
Since the reduction program’s start, hunters have had to remove the jawbone from each harvested deer to determine its age. Biological data also is collected, such as gender, weight and antler characteristics.
Jason Allen, a district wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, collects deer information in 11 counties, including Durham and Orange.
“Our deer population is kept in check through regulated hunting,” Allen said. “That’s why in urban areas, where hunting is disallowed, that’s why the deer population explodes so quickly.”
The commission also checks for diseases, including the new threat, chronic wasting disease. This threat still hasn’t reared its head in North Carolina, but has popped up as close as northern Virginia. The disease is 100-percent fatal, Allen said.
Deer populations are steadily increasing, and the data collected from harvested deer is sent to the commission’s deer biologist, who uses the information to form a health snapshot of the state’s deer population.
“These folks really take charge of the program and make sure all of the data is collected correctly,” Allen said of Duke Forest. “They really go above and beyond.”
Thompson said during the Bowhunters Association’s first two Duke Forest hunting seasons, every deer they killed had unhealthy kidneys. The deer, he said, were starved to death due to overpopulation. Every leaf that should have been within their reach had been eaten, making it look like the green underlayer of forest brush had been burned away.
Last year, due to acorns dropping from trees throughout the forest, the deer population was spread out.
“It makes me very proud to be part of a group that has a little bit of impact, that I’m actually seeing spotted fawn now,” Thompson said. “I’m seeing that what we’ve done has been a benefit to the herd.”
Bell, past president of the Bowhunters Association, said that in their first year, Duke Forest employees saw about 70 to 80 deer per square mile and they wanted that number down to about 25.
Civilization long ago wiped out the white-tailed deer’s local natural predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, Bell said. Deer are intelligent, and when urban areas don’t allow hunting, deer realize that land is a sanctuary.
During Bell’s bowhunting days at Duke Forest, he said he appreciated being away from phone calls and the TV. He just listened to the wildlife from among the trees, learning how to translate the movements and sounds small animals made into signs that a deer was nearby.
“It’s just a different world 25, 30 feet off the ground in the woods,” he said.