FAIR BLUFF — It was almost impossible to believe, but there was the evidence. First deer, then turkeys had eaten carefully nurtured long-leaf pine seedlings.
“Even the N.C. Wildlife Commission Biologist didn’t believe it until he saw it for himself,” said Ricky Ward, a 41-year-old forester for Claybourn Walters Logging in Fair Bluff. “But turkeys were digging eating the long-leaf seedlings deer hadn’t already eaten. The planting was a total loss.”
Ward said he and like-minded landowners, farmers and land managers have been trying to bring back quail to their former status as king of North Carolina’s game birds by forming a cooperative, Lumber River Outdoors, across 4,000 acres of contiguous lands in Columbus County. Interest in hunting quail waned with the loss of their habitat and population. Conversely, while the deer population has grown tremendously, interest in hunting them has declined.
“We got tired of hearing how good the quail hunting was 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “We have burned hundreds of acres to improve quail habitat and planted at 20 acres of food plots. I hunted deer when I was younger, but now I don’t care anything about it. I would rather watch my bird dogs run.”
Concerned that deer were eating everything in sight – sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans, food plots and pine seedlings – Ward helped the Lumber River Outdoors landowners enroll their properties in Farmers Manage Deer, a cooperative program. Judy and Guy Gardner are volunteers with the Cape Fear Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association. They are also the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s project managers for Farmers Manage Deer.
“Dick Hamilton, Coordinator of the N.C. Wildlife Federation’s Camo Coalition, wrote the grant,” Judy Gardner said. “N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Executive Director Gordon Myers, Director Steve Troxler of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Herman Sampson of Hunters for the Hungry are also involved. We represent the roles of the N.C. Wildlife Federation and Quality Deer Management Association in serving and coordinating community support. Hunters for the Hungry will set up regional depots where hunters can drop off donated meat for local food banks.”
NCQDMA compiled a 300-page manual as an antlerless deer harvest tool to help landowners set harvest goals. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension hosted meetings and helped develop an internship program that will develop a protocol to measure crop damage by deer and any decrease attributed to hunting. The N.C. Department of Agriculture created the Hunt NC Farmland website (www.ncagr.gov/Hunt) to register hunters.
The program recruited hunters for two one-week hunts early in the season when the chances of harvesting doe deer are highest. On-site meetings for the hunts will begin on Sunday. Each hunter is encouraged to take four does and can take the venison home or donate it to North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry. The harvest of antlered bucks is subject to negotiations between landowners and hunters. After the initial two weeks, farmers and hunters will have the opportunity to extend their relationships, with Farmers Manage Deer offering support.
“We will lease these farmer’s lands for two weeks and the cost to hunters will be the cost of liability insurance, estimated at $10 per week,” Gardner said. “After that, we will provide the tools they need to continue the hunting and the farmers will interact with the hunters on their own.”
Providing incentive for the two-year program is the pending loss of Tobacco Settlement Trust Fund money in 2014. The trust fund replaces income lost from the dismantling of the tobacco price support system and goes directly to the tax base of tobacco farming counties. Gardner said the tobacco settlement trust fund provides $11 million of tax base in Columbus County alone. She estimated the 92 Farmers Manage Deer hunters in Columbus County would spend $10,000 per week.
“The hunts will increase crop yields by reducing depredation and bring money into these counties from hunters who buy fuel, food and other things related to travel and hunting.”
Gardner said the Farmers Manage Deer exceeded its enrollment goal of 15,000 acres, with 25 landowners in 11 counties enrolling 15,875 acres. Landowners in Columbus County enrolled the largest acreage. Other landowners enrolled farms in Beaufort, Bladen, Duplin, Edgecombe, Franklin, Halifax, Onslow, Sampson, Wilson, Person, Wayne counties.
“We were able to get 4,835 hunters signed up for 32 hunts through the www.huntncfarmland website set up by the N.C. Department of Agriculture,” Gardner said. In eight days, all of the hunts were full.