(The following was adapted from a media release of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.)
On Monday, 21 young white-tailed deer from Morrow Mountain State Park were released from a special four-acre compound high in the Smoky Mountains onto the Qualla Boundary, tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The deer will be carefully tracked and observed by scientists and tribal members on a special 5,130-acre natural preserve area of the reservation.
The release is the result of a unique wildlife relocation program – augmenting the sparse herd of the Cherokee with healthy deer from the state park. (Find the original blog about the program here.)
When the fur trade depleted the population of white-tailed deer in western North Carolina, nobody anticipated the consequences. Now, centuries later, the Cherokees who have inhabited the region for more than 10,000 years, are hoping to bring back this prized native species.
“The white tail population native to the Qualla Boundary, home to our tribe for centuries, has dwindled,” says Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, “and we are committed to restoring the population of this native species as part of our commitment to environmental preservation.”
The deer have lived in the compound since mid-January. They were carefully examined, tagged and fitted with radio collars at the state park before transfer and confinement in the holding area, prior to the “soft release” into the wild.
According to Hicks, this is about more than restoring the native deer population. “This is an important, cutting-edge scientific study to see if these animals will survive and proliferate. We will track and monitor them carefully and, hopefully, in a few years they will again become a viable and self-sustaining species in our mountains just as they were centuries ago.”
The Eastern Band’s Fisheries and Wildlife Management Department is supervising the deer release program in cooperation with the state parks system, the National Park Service, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Department of Agriculture. This is the first stage of a three-year effort.
At the forefront of the replenishment project is Dr. Caleb Hickman, himself a Cherokee tribal member and the supervisory biologist on the project. “We are tracking these deer and others released earlier to determine their movement patterns, whether they will form family groups, and if they will prosper in the years ahead. Like the successful elk reintroduction that took place 12 years ago, these deer represent a stock in the future of wildlife on the Qualla Boundary.”
“We rely a lot on ‘citizen science’”, says Hickman. “People living in the area observe the deer and send us reports of their sightings. This is critical to helping us determine their whereabouts, their condition and their socialization habits. This is one of the most controlled species enhancement programs ever undertaken in North Carolina and we are learning a lot.”
By year’s end, Hickman projects that more than 50 deer will have been processed through the Cherokee program. Of those, 29 are females and many are expected to give birth to fawns following the winter breeding season, Hickman said.