ALBEMARLE – Morrow Mountain State Park participated in a three-year project to relocate white-tailed deer from the park to reservation lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Partners in the initiative were the North Carolina State Parks, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, biologists from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management Program.
This effort was intended to benefit both sites. The reservation lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians would benefit from the release of white tailed deer. The Cherokee Fisheries and Wildlife Management program has worked to protect the resources and have worked to restore native species to their region. These efforts will have lasting effects on their tribal community and on the region. In turn, Morrow Mountain State Park could change the behavior of its deer population that have become habituated to its visitors.
Morrow Mountain State Park has an abundance of healthy native deer that could readily be identified and collected. The deer at Morrow Mountain state park had become habituated to human behavior. The deer in some areas were so tame they would approach visitors and eat from their hand. This created an unnatural behavior for deer and also created a possibly dangerous situation for park visitors.
A 2013 herd health study by the state park and the Wildlife Resources Commission suggested that this project would benefit the herd and habitat at Morrow Mountain State Park. The relocation project was carried out under specialized scientific protocols developed by the Wildlife Resources Commission.
The agencies intended to augment the Cherokee reservation’s sparse population of white-tailed deer, an animal that figures prominently in Cherokee lore and cultural traditions. The deer were gradually released onto the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary, in habitat improved for browsing and off-limits to hunting.
During this effort, 144 deer were relocated, primarily females in small family groups. Initial collections were in January 2014, 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 were kept in a large pen on the reservation and closely monitored for about four weeks before they were released.
The effects on the population at Morrow Mountain State Park have been substantial. The parks deer population now acts like a wild population. They will no longer approach visitors or eat directly from campsites. This is a great benefit to the health of the population as well as the safety of our visitors.
A byproduct of the relocation project is 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.
Many lessons can be learned over the next few years as the study continues of those deer released onto the reservation. However, we already have seen dramatic effects on deer behavior on the state park. This was a very unique project that will hopefully benefit both sites far into the future.