Deer decline a worrySportsmen want a different forest management route
Deer hunting is an age-old tradition and popular past time in Haywood County. From far-stretching public game lands at Cold Mountain and Pisgah National Forest and state-owned land near the Little East Fork, locals have plenty of rugged terrain for hunting. But in recent years, finding deer to hunt has become more and more difficult.
Mark Rogers has hunted this area all of his life, but he’s watched as others move across the state line to find better deer populations.
“A lot go to South Carolina and Georgia to hunt because hunting deer here is a challenge,” Rogers said. “At the eastern end of North Carolina, a hunter might see more deer in a day than I’ll see all season.”
The only buck Rogers killed this year wandered into his backyard near Lake Logan.
But Rogers and several of his fellow members of the WNC Sportsman’s Club believe that better wildlife management will improve the deer population in the county.
The club recently met with local key players from state and federal lands to discuss how they can be more involved.
A better habitat
When it comes to improving the habitat for deer, logging trees was the main topic of conversation.
Logging is a controversial subject, Rogers said, but many don’t understand the benefits it can provide to the environment. He referenced a piece of clear-cut land just across the road from Lake Logan. That area of state property was cut about two years ago and is now beginning to grow back and show signs of vibrant wildlife.
“It looks bushy but there are a lot of animals that need that type of habitat to survive,” he said.
Wildlife biologists now recognize harvesting timber is essential for a diverse population of animals, especially deer.
Mike Carraway, a Wildlife Resource Commission biologist for western North Carolina, said the WRC has been logging different areas of Haywood at different intervals for several years.
“It’s not good for the environment to cut all the trees, but if you cut some of the trees in select places, it gives you a better habitat,” Carraway said. “When you cut trees, it will regenerate into young forest, so the best habitat is to have a mixture of old forest, young forest and intermediate forest in different stages.”
That type of habitat is perfect for a variety of animals to thrive such as fox, rabbit, grouse and songbirds.
Deer require mature forest for acorn, which is their primary food source in the fall. But when acorn is scarce in winter months, they need young forests that produce browse, which are young plants, Carraway said.
The WRC also conducts prescribed burns to get rid of unnecessary underbrush that, in the event of a forest fire, would cause more significant damage.
While the WRC has been harvesting timber to encourage healthy habitat, the federally owned game lands are becoming overgrown because of a lack of logging and prescribed burns.
Conservationists and recreational groups often influence the U.S. Forest Service to stay away from timber harvesting and controlled burning on federally owned land, which makes up the vast majority of public hunting grounds in Haywood County, Rogers said.
“There are people who firmly believe that it’s wrong to cut trees any time for any reason, but that’s not good for wildlife, and it’s not healthy for the forest,” Carraway said.
Because federal lands are not being logged, the bear and coyote populations, which prefer thicker forest, have increased in the county. That means more bear and coyote are feeding on fawns, he said.
The lack of federal land management has led deer down the mountain to private property in search of open, grassy areas where they like to feed.
Although hunters can get the permission of property owners to hunt on their land, often times it’s not acceptable to hunt where there is a large residential population, Rogers said.
Billie Riddle, president of the Western Carolina Deer Quality Management Program, said it’s not just deer that are suffering from unsuitable habitat.
“The lack of management in our national forests has really crippled our deer and grouse population, and the quail are gone, period,” Riddle said, adding that the Golden Wing Warbler also thrives on clear cut habitats. “The wildlife habitat has to improve or the deer will become an endangered species in Western North Carolina.”
Making their voices heard
Pisgah Forest District Ranger Derek Ibarguen said the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits logging or burning on Cold Mountain or the Blue Ridge Parkway. But it is allowed in places such as Sunburst and Lickstone.
The Forest Service recently had timber sales near Looking Glass Rock and they continually work toward finding different ways to create early successional habitat, Ibarguen said.
With the Forest Service’s 15-year management plan approaching, the public will be invited to several hearings to make suggestions on what should be done on federal game lands.
Rogers and Riddle believe that sportsmen interested in seeing improvements should plan to attend those public hearings and make their voices heard as much as conservationists.
“I’ve been to so many of these meetings and you see so many environmental groups there but no ordinary Joes that are sportsman or concerned about the wildlife itself,” Riddle said.
Rogers plans to urge other hunters to ask for more activity on federal lands to improve the deer population.
"We need to get involved and really have our voices heard," he said.