About 3,200 acres of Duke Forest will be closed to the public on weekdays through Dec. 16 as hunters cull the deer population.
The Durham, Korstian and Blackwood, three of Duke Forest’s six divisions, will be closed to address overgrazing that official say is hurting the forest’s health, ecosystem and research experiments.
Duke University has been participating in the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Deer Management Assistance Program for nine years and did a pilot hunting program in the forest two years before joining the state program.
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Duke Forest covers more than 7,000 acres maintained by Duke University. Its primary mission is teaching and research, said Sara Childs, director of Duke Forest. It is also used for the protection of natural resources, harvesting timber and recreational use.
The forest begins west of Duke’s West Campus and occupies land in Durham, Orange and Alamance counties. The three affected divisions will be open on weekends and Nov. 24-25 for Thanksgiving.
Why the hunt?
The deer are affecting the future of forest.
“They eat seedlings and saplings of all species of trees, and that affects whether or not there is young forest growing up under the canopy of the old forest,” Childs said. “And so in the long term what that means is whether or not you will have trees and even have a forest anymore.”
In some cases, deer will leave in their wake a browse line – a brown area where the deer have consumed all the vegetation on the ground to where they can stretch their heads.
Is it working?
Yes, the hunt is removing deer from the forest, Childs said, and it appears to be beneficial for forest growth.
But it will take a while to understand the larger impact on the deer population and future growth of the forest.
Last year, hunters killed 43 deer – the lowest number yet, Childs said.
Population trends must be examined over time to determine whether something is making an impact or changes are due to other causes, such as disease, she said. In February or March, forest workers also do a six-night spotlight survey to count the deer they see.
In 2010, they saw 236. the most they have ever seen. Last year, they saw 105.
About the hunt.
The hunting is highly regulated. Hunters are required to register, take an orientation, and check in and out of a 500 square-foot grid of the forest.
Deer in the Durham and Korstian divisions will be hunted with bows and arrows. Hunters in the Blackwood division will use bows and arrows and guns. The Blackwood division is mainly a restricted area, and the hunters who are allowed to use guns are current and former law enforcement officers.
Hunter surveys indicate that 95 or more percent of the deer meat is used for personal consumption. Otherwise the meat is donated to churches and other places like Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro.