Morrow Mountain deer finding new home on Cherokee tribal lands

Maria Palamar, a veterinarian with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, adjusts radio collar and ear tags on captured white-tailed deer.

Maria Palamar, a veterinarian and biologist, with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, adjusts radio collar and ear tag on captured white-tailed deer.

Morrow Mountain State Park is participating in a long-term project to relocate white-tailed deer from the park in Stanly County to reservation lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Partners in the initiative are the state parks system, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, biologists from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management program.

The project augments the reservation’s sparse population of white-tailed deer, an animal that figures prominently in Cherokee lore and cultural traditions. The deer will be gradually released onto the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary, in habitat improved for browsing and currently off-limits to hunting.

Many of the captured animals were found close to park roads and campgrounds.

Many of the captured animals were found close to park roads and campgrounds.

In each of the next three years, 25-50 deer will be relocated, primarily females in small family groups. Initial collections began in January, with biologists using darts to tranquilize the animals, collecting data on age and health, and fitting each with a tag and radio collar. The deer are transported to the reservation in small individual crates with 3-5 crates carried on each vehicle. Upon arrival, the animals are subject to a “soft release” – initially kept in a four-acre, penned area and closely monitored for about four weeks before being released. This is located on a 5,600-acre Tribal Reserve property, set aside for communal mixed-use activities (such as fishing, plant and firewood gathering, recreation, etc.)

The Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management staff has been active in developing suitable browsing habitat, in part through a prescribed burn program, and is refining a long-term white-tailed deer management plan.

“We’re pleased that the state park can fulfill this request for white-tailed deer on the Cherokee reservation in a way that’s consistent with wise natural resource management, “ said Carol Tingley, acting state parks director. “Morrow Mountain State Park sustains an abundance of healthy native deer that can readily be identified and collected.”

A 2013 herd health study by the state park and the Wildlife Resources Commission suggests that such a project will benefit the remaining herd and habitat at Morrow Mountain. The relocation project is carried out under specialized scientific protocols developed by the wildlife agency.

“Environmental protection of the Natural Resources of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been paramount for my administration. The Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management program has worked to protect those resources and has worked to restore native species to the region,” Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks said.

Deer in individual crates are loaded for the four-hour journey to the Cherokee Qualla Boundary reservation.

Deer in individual crates are loaded for the four-hour journey to the Cherokee Qualla Boundary reservation.

A byproduct of the relocation project will be a unique research opportunity that can offer insight into white-tailed deer health and best practices for rebuilding and sustaining healthy herds. This type of information will benefit wildlife management agencies as well as private, nonprofit groups involved in deer rehabilitation.

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