White-tailed deer, a plentiful nuisance elsewhere, find welcome on Cherokee tribal lands

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 23, 2014 

  • River fish rediscovered, restored

    Another long-lost staple in the ancient Cherokee diet is making a comeback on the Qualla Boundary. State and federal biologists are working with the Eastern Band to restore the sicklefin redhorse, a large but little-known river fish.

    It’s an unusual animal that can grow 3 feet long and weigh as much as 7 pounds. It swims upstream in spring to spawn.

    “They conduct mass migrations up some pretty small streams, in dense numbers,” said Tom Kwak, a professor of applied ecology with N.C. State University and the U.S. Geological Survey. “The Native Americans used stone weirs to trap them as they were going upriver, and they spearfished them as they were spawning. The sicklefin redhorse is very important, culturally, to the Cherokee.”

    There were other ways to catch the sicklefin: with gigs, or with plants that poisoned pools of water and stunned the fish in large numbers, so they could be scooped out with baskets. The fish were smoked and dried, cooked in soups or rolled in cornmeal and fried.

    Scientists first thought they had found a new species in 1992 when they came across the coppery green fish with a bright red tail and sickle-shaped dorsal fin. Now they know it lives in four Western North Carolina counties, where it was identified early in the 20th century.

    The sicklefin is a sucker – a bottom-feeder that slurps tiny insects and crustaceans from plants in clear, rushing streams. Its numbers have been diminished by sediment pollution from farming and development, and by dams that wiped out miles of streams.

    Duke Energy demolished an old hydropower dam in Jackson County in 2010 to restore miles of natural river habitat on the Tuckasegee. Biologists say the action quickly extended the range of the sicklefin and other rare stream animals. Now they are building up the sicklefin’s numbers in the Oconaluftee River, which flows through the Eastern Band’s tribal lands and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Staff writer Bruce Siceloff

— The white-tailed deer that roam Morrow Mountain State Park are unperturbed when motorists pull over and roll down their windows, so the dart-gun marksman nailed his quarry Thursday without having to get out of the truck.

Two deer were tranquilized, blindfolded and delivered gently to a team of wildlife biologists waiting to send them to a new home 200 miles away. Already this week, 20 white-tails had been tagged and trucked off to the Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina, where the Cherokee Indians have launched a three-year program to replenish tribal forests with an animal that once was central to their identity and existence.

It might not be easy. Deer are scarce today in the deep, dark forests of the southern Appalachians, which are not ideal deer habitat.

But they’re abundant seemingly everywhere across the southeastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain. White-tails have worn out their welcome in countless cropfields and suburban flower gardens. Plant a few azaleas or a little corn, and you can find yourself feeding a handful of does, a couple of spotted fawns and a six-point buck.

“In the modern era, it’s unusual for people to want deer,” said Mike LaVoie, fisheries and wildlife management program director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “Usually they want to get rid of them.”

Dr. Maria Palamar, a wildlife veterinarian, and biologists from a handful of state and federal agencies examined Deer No. 21 and No. 22 Thursday afternoon and fitted each with a white radio collar and pink ear tags. Brad Howard of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission shone a light into Deer No. 21’s mouth and announced that she was 8 or 9 years old.

History with Cherokees

Archaeologists and tribal historians say deer were a key part of Cherokee life and lore for centuries before the first European settlers arrived. The animals were plentiful across tribal territory that extended over what now are eight Southeastern states. They were the Cherokees’ chief food source.

Deerskins were the only commodity the Cherokee had for trading with settlers. Tribal historian Tyler Howe says Europeans were importing more than 50,000 hides per year at the height of the deerskin trade. And by the middle of the 18th century, Europeans and Native Americans had hunted the white-tail nearly to extinction.

One of the seven groups that define Cherokee society is the Deer Clan, its members known as hunters, fast runners and messengers. A mythic figure called Little Deer taught Cherokees to live in harmony with the animals, and to show respect for the deer they hunted and killed.

Eastern Band leaders are making a new push to broaden environmental diversity in tribal lands known as the Qualla Boundary, 56,000 acres of primarily forested land located mostly in Swain County, about an hour west of Asheville.

Deer counts are estimated at no more than 12 per square mile on the Qualla Boundary today, compared with 80 or 90 per square mile at Morrow Mountain. Deer hunting is outlawed on tribal lands, but the Cherokee hope one day to have enough white-tails to support hunting again.

Meanwhile, they simply want their children to live among the deer.

“Having this iconic animal back allows us to connect science and culture in a way that is visible and that provides a learning opportunity for the community,” LaVoie said. “It’s really important to help our school kids understand this historic connection to a cultural resource.”

More hospitable forests

To make that happen, the Eastern Band will have to make its mature forests more hospitable. Deer need ground cover for nesting, and shrubs and grasses to eat. The Qualla Boundary is filled with mature, closed-canopy forests where little sunlight reaches the ground. The Eastern Band is starting a long-range forest management program that will include prescribed burns and tree thinning.

“People assume that deer live in the deep forest, but deer really prefer a mix of forests and fields,” Howard said. “That’s why they like our subdivisions. We have nice little fields planted for them in the woods, and the fields happen to be our yards.”

Loggers frequently are criticized for practices that degrade wildlife habitat, but clear-cutting is great for white-tail deer.

“After you cut everything down, for the first four or five years there is a tremendous amount of browse and food available for deer, and they respond by having more fawns,” said wildlife biologist Perry Sumner, a 31-year veteran of the state Division of Wildlife Management.

“It also makes it harder to hunt them there, where the terrain is pretty thick. The deer population will basically explode once you do that,” Sumner said.

North Carolina has plenty of experience with programs to expand populations of wildlife including wild turkeys, beavers, river otters and deer. These efforts sometimes have proven more successful than anyone expected – or wanted.

From the 1940s into the early 1980s, Wildlife Resources Commission employees corralled animals in deer refuges at Butner and in the Uwharrie Mountains, not far from Morrow Mountain State Park, and moved them into other parts of North Carolina.

Beavers were released in the Sandhills in the early 1940s, just as the market for beaver pelts – once popular with European hatmakers – was collapsing. Umstead State Park in Raleigh was stocked with beavers from Alabama.

“Now they have become somewhat of a nuisance, as have deer,” Sumner said. “Nobody foresaw there ever being a problem, because there had never been enough deer or beavers to meet the demand for folks hunting or trapping them.”

But they’ll be welcome on the Qualla Boundary.

The two deer tranquilized Thursday were lifted onto thick cushions of straw inside tall plywood boxes. Palamar, the veterinarian, gave each animal an injection, removed their blindfolds and stroked their heads until they awakened.

Deer No. 21, the mature doe, snorted and leaped to her feet. Half an hour later she was bumping the sides of her box as the biologists lifted the two animals onto a pickup truck for the four-hour drive to Swain County.

The deer will spend their first few weeks being acclimated in a four-acre forest pen that has been improved with clearings and plantings of clover and other vegetation. Then they’ll be released into the woods.

“They’ll do fine there,” LaVoie said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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