CHAPEL HILL — The latest Duke Forest deer hunt killed 75 animals, the fewest since the hunt began five years ago. But officials say it’s too soon to measure the long-term impact.
The Office of the Duke Forest opened the woods to selected hunting groups from Sept. 24 to Dec. 14 to stem damage that has stripped parts of the forest to the browse line – from the ground to as high as the deer can reach.
Over time, officials said, the damage has threatened research and the health of the forest, which is open to government, academic and nonprofit research groups, as well as for recreation.
This year’s hunt in three of the forest’s six divisions was two weeks shorter than last year.
Bow hunters took 60 does and 15 bucks, down from a total of 81 deer in 2011 and 123 in 2010.
“We were pretty happy with that number,” said program director Sara Childs. “Overall it seems like we’re consistently getting at least 75 in our hunted years.”
Though fewer deer were killed in 2012, it’s hard to gauge the impact, she said.
Duke doesn’t know how many deer live in the forest, which has a lot of “very edgy” areas close to residential areas where animals may travel back and forth.
Also the past two years were good acorn seasons, Childs said. That gave deer alternatives to the corn piles some hunters use to lure them into range of the tree stands from which they shoot downward at the animals.
But damage to the forest continues, said UNC biology professor Robert Peet.
“We still have too many deer. They’re still doing damage,” he said. “I wish they were killing more deer.”
Peet, a southeastern Piedmont forest expert, has data from Duke Forest plots studied in 1978 and resampled in 2000 and 2009. The data show continuing deforestation.
“They have decreased the diversity of (plant) species. They have decreased the density of seedlings and saplings,” he said. A lay person could look at the photos from then and now and easily see the damage, he said.
The university closed the three hunted forest divisions while the bow hunters worked, and Childs said the five annual hunts have proceeded without incident
This year’s hunt came amid a call for an urban archery season in Durham to cull the deer population. The state has authorized such special post-season bow hunting in 37 North Carolina towns, including Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield said the staff is reviewing the request.
In Chapel Hill, where some Town Council members were initially aghast at the idea, 10 deer were taken last year; five the year before that. Hunters may use their own land and others’ by permission, but public property is off-limits.
Pittsboro, in its fourth urban archery season, requires landowners to register to register their property where they will allow urban archery. Hunters took two deer there in each of the past two years, but, police Cpl. Troy Roberson said no land has been registered in 2013. This year’s urban archery season ends Saturday.
Childs said the hunt will continue in Duke Forest, where officials still see little vegetation within deer’s reach in some areas.
“Every deer taken prevents additions to the population,” she said. “It would be growing if we were not hunting.”
Staff writer Jim Wise contributed to this report.