Thursday, October 22, 2009

NORTH CAROLINA NEWS: Deer and Deer Management at Duke Forest

here wasn't a deer in sight 38 years ago when Duke professor Norm Christensen began a long career studying the ecosystem of Duke Forest.

Now, deer are so abundant they've inserted themselves into his research. Christensen now studies how deer affect plant life just as he studies how hurricanes or climate change do.

"It really complicates what we're trying to understand," he said of sharing his research laboratory with so many deer. "But we're trying to make lemonade out of lemons."

Christensen may soon be documenting a drop in the deer population. Duke is in the midst of its second controlled hunt at Duke Forest in two years. Last fall, hunters killed 75 deer; this year, Duke officials hope to cull 100 white-tailed deer from a forest thought to hold as many as 600.

The exercise speaks to a problem that goes beyond the boundaries of the 7,000-acre Duke Forest. North Carolina's deer population has increased from about 670,000 in 1984 to more than 1.25 million in 2007, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

In such numbers, the deer are causing trouble. In addition to playing havoc with research in Duke Forest, they feast on people's gardens and landscaping and have caused 20 motor vehicle-related deaths in the last two years.

But the most popular solution -- regulated bow-hunting -- is hard for some people to stomach and has prompted public conversation and head-scratching about how best to handle the ubiquitous deer.

Some say the hunts are too dangerous. Others think they're morally wrong.

Lee Glenn fears the hunt will tear apart deer herds -- animal families that rely on each other. Glenn lives near Duke Forest in Orange County and has gotten to know a herd that frequents her backyard. They're close-knit and reliant on each other, she said.

"It would sort of be like if you had a brother or sister and someone decided to pick your brother or sister off," she said. "Just to thin you out a little."

Jane Norton, a sustainability educator, moved to her home in rural Orange County 22 years ago to be near Duke Forest. She doesn't think there are too many deer.

"I care about all of nature and think it's live in harmony with the natural world," Norton said. "I think our purpose on this earth is to learn from nature. I don't believe in playing God."

No easy way

Some say the method of hunting -- bows and arrows -- is both dangerous and inhumane.

Evin Stanford, a deer biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission, disagrees. "If there was an "Easy" button to push to resolve the problem, believe me, we would implement it," Stanford said. "But hunting is really the only feasible mechanism we have."

Other methods, such as a contraceptive product called GonaCon, sound more humane but are expensive, difficult to administer and have not proven to have lasting results, Stanford said.

Around the region, local governments and neighborhoods alike are grappling with deer. In Chapel Hill, for example, residents of one neighborhood asked town leaders for permission to conduct a bowhunt. At least one town council member, Sally Greene, said an urban archery program like that was simply too dangerous.

N.C. State operates six forests for research purposes. On at least one, Schenk Forest near the RBC Center, the deer population is growing steadily, said Joe Cox, NCSU's college forest manager.

"It's unusual to go out there and not see a deer," Cox said, adding that NCSU hasn't begun to consider culling deer.

In Duke Forest, an acceptable number of deer would be 15 to 20 per square mile; officials estimate the population is about 80 per square mile, said Judson Edeburn, the Duke Forest Resource Manager. They feast on plants and trees and wipe out saplings before they have a chance to grow. When they venture out of the forest and into surrounding communities, they ravage gardens.

"What people plant in their yards is just a salad bar for deer," Edeburn said.

Over time, the deer population swelled as predators such as wolves and panthers dwindled. And residential development has played a role as well, turning forests into neighborhoods.

The hunt in Duke Forest runs through mid-December. Duke has contracted with two hunting groups, which Edeburn declined to identify. There will be about 70 hunters involved; 50 will use bows while about 20 will use guns. Not all will hunt at once.

Hunters can keep or donate the deer meat.

Duke Forest is divided into six divisions in Durham, Orange and Alamance counties. Hunters are operating in the Durham, Korstian, Blackwood and Hillsborough divisions, Monday through Friday. Those areas are closed to the public at those times, though teaching exercises are still allowed.

The hunters are trained marksmen required to demonstrate their accuracy each year by hitting a three-inch target from 20 yards, Edeburn said. They operate from deer stands perched in trees to shoot down rather than horizontally. They shoot not at the flank, neck or head, but at the lung or heart.

Generally, it takes one quick shot to kill a deer, Edeburn said.

"These are highly-skilled hunters," he said. "These are not amateurs."

Source: News Observer

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