By John E. Phillips
As early as the fall of 2003, we may see deer hunting in Oak Mountain State Park, just outside of Birmingham. In a scenario that is playing out in state parks all around the Cotton State, the deer herd there has become drastically overpopulated. The dual causes are natural reproduction and civilization’s encroachment on the facility, forcing the deer that once lived outside the park to seek refuge in the park.
You can compare this situation to that of a fenced pasture that can only support 100 cows and then suddenly 300 more cattle move into that pasture. This overpopulated deer herd at Oak Mountain State Park is destroying the habitat.
To better understand why hunters may have to thin out the deer population at Oak Mountain State Park, State Parks Director Mark Easterwood is the man to talk to.
“Oak Mountain State Park has the most severe problem of deer overpopulation and range destruction of any of the state parks,” Easterwood argued. “Urban development around Oak Mountain has driven deer onto the state park lands, increasing the number of animals living in the park.”
Subdivision and all the trappings of civilization continue to decrease the amount of undeveloped land in central Alabama. With all the new construction in the Birmingham/Pelham area, the deer in this region are looking for refuges.
Unless the state takes extreme measures quickly, you could see Oak Mountain’s deer population become emaciated and diseased and then suffering major die-offs.
According to Corky Pugh, the director of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, regulated hunting will work best as a management tool to control deer numbers at Oak Mountain.
Many people are opposed to hunting deer in Oak Mountain or any other state park. However, unless the state biologists have such a tool at their disposal, this and other state parks face bleak prospects. The deer herd could soon begin to die off. In such a situation, resisting the temptation to make emotional decisions and instead rely on proven wildlife and forest-management practices is imperative. Though Oak Mountain is the case study and the most obviously imperiled of the state parks, it is not alone. Guntersville State Park, on the Tennessee River in northeast Alabama, is exhibiting the same problem, and many of the other parks within the system demonstrate the early signs of a problem as well.
“We must have a balance between the deer herd and the land’s ability to produce the food to sustain that deer herd,” Easterwood emphasized.
To get a better handle on the severity of the deer problem at Oak Mountain, the DWFF had the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, based in Athens, Ga., and associated with the University of Georgia’s School of Veterinary Medicine, study the deer herd at Oak Mountain and Guntersville state parks. That study showed that Oak Mountain had an overpopulation of deer three years ago. Reproduction and migration have only exacerbated the problem in the ensuing years.
“When we evaluated the forest system at Oak Mountain, we discovered that the forest there was not rejuvenating like it should,” Easterwood explained. “Because of this factor, little sunlight was getting to the forest floor, which decreased the amount of food on which the deer could browse.
“Just as the deer herd is beginning to destroy itself, the mature forest at Oak Mountain also is destroying its own habitat,” Easterwood related. “By opening up the canopy of the forest and removing some of the dead, diseased and mature trees that only have about a five-year life span left, we can allow more sunlight to get to the ground to stimulate plant growth.”
However, if the sunlight falls on pine straw, leaf litter and rotting tree limbs, similar to what happens when you place a sheet of black plastic over your lawn, no plants can grow through it. In such a situation, a combination of thinning trees and controlled burning is the usual method of improving forestland. The burning removes the litter off the forest floor and gives the green plants a chance to grow and rejuvenate, while thinning the trees lets sunlight in to enhance the process.
Needless to say, there is a large public constituency that balks at the ides of cutting timber and burning in state parks.
Oak Mountain needs controlled burning because under a natural situation, every few years a wildfire would start from a lightning strike and burn off the forest. On the other hand, once land is placed in a state park, wildfires are immediately extinguished. With a controlled burn conducted by forest professionals, only the areas that need it will be burned. The other bonus is that it removes the fuel on which wildfires thrive.
“By selectively removing certain trees, doing controlled burns in prescribed areas and removing the surplus of deer, we’ll see all forms of wildlife rebound at Oak Mountain,” Easterwood emphasizes. “And the park will once again return to a more-robust wildlife area for bird watchers, nature enthusiasts, campers, hikers and all those who enjoy the natural beauty of the wilderness at Oak Mountain.”
“We’ve trapped deer at both Oak Mountain and at Guntersville, and trapping deer takes a lot of time,” Easterwood noted. “The time involved to try and reduce the herd by trapping and transplanting deer is just not feasible. If we capture 50 deer through the course of a year, the herd left at Oak Mountain still could reproduce three times that number.”
You can compare trapping and relocating deer to pouring water into a bottomless bucket. Also, deer contraceptives have not proved very effective in other areas of the country where they
have been used. Additionally, such birth control cannot reduce the deer herd quickly enough to prevent die-offs and further range degradation.
The problem with trapping the animals is that the entire state of Alabama has a surplus of white-tailed deer too. Rather than being a solution, transplanting the deer simply moves the problem from one area to another.
Another consideration is the present financial crunch Alabama finds itself in. Who would pay for the additional manpower, vehicles and deer traps? Right now the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources cannot even fill the vacancies created when employees retire. The animal-rights groups that oppose hunting at Oak Mountain State Park have not come forward with any money for alternate schemes either.
“If we don’t reduce the deer herd now at Oak Mountain, within a very few years, we may see a severe die-off of the entire herd because of poor nutrition, parasites and disease,” Easterwood warned. “And we don’t want this to happen.”
For these reasons, deer hunts at Oak Mountain look like the only option to solve the problem. It would be a win/win situation for the state park system and an interested user group – hunters. The parks could get control of the deer herds and hunters would get to match wits with the whitetails. Another bonus is that hunters have never been shy about putting their money up on behalf of their sport, through licenses and extra permits.
Some recommendations already made by sportsmen include the state permitting hunts at Oak Mountain through a lottery system. Hunters would pay a designated amount to enter their names in a lottery. The hunters who are drawn get an opportunity to hunt Oak Mountain and remove a specified number of deer. Conservation officers would accompany the sportsmen, but the hunters could use either guns or archery equipment. By using this system, all the hunters would be sure they are in the designated hunting area and that they harvest the right number and type of deer permitted. The obvious drawback of this idea is, again, one of manpower and payroll from the DWFF.
Other outdoorsmen have suggested closing a portion or the entire park, then allowing bowhunters free rein to fill their quota of whitetails. Also, scheduling of youth hunts at Oak Mountain has some support. This system would let youngsters, accompanied by adults, eliminate the surplus.
No matter the system used, it is likely that the hunters involved would end up with more venison than they could use themselves. To alleviate that problem, they could donate the deer taken to the state’s Hunters Helping The Hungry program.
Any other suggestions for ways to reduce the deer herd at Oak Mountain can be e-mailed to cscardina@ dcnr.state.al or postal-mailed to Mark Easterwood at the following address: Alabama State Parks, Attn. Gary Moody, 64 North Union St., Montgomery, AL 36130.
“I may not be able to respond personally to all the letters we receive, but these letters will play an important role in deciding what method we use to reduce the deer herd at Oak Mountain,” Easterwood said.
“I went to the National State Parks Directors meeting in September of 2002,” Easterwood recounted. “Many of the state park directors attending explained that they had held hunts in parks to control deer populations for a number of years.”
Some states sell permits for archery hunts in their parks, while others hold firearms hunts. A number of state parks have tried trapping and the use of contraceptives to control their deer herd, but with little success. In the end, only two methods have been successful
“The majority of state park directors have either sold permits to hunters to remove the surplus or they’ve hired snipers to come in and remove the deer,” Easterwood said.
Of course, if the second alternative is chosen, the state must pay the snipers to remove the deer. If they hold hunts, they receive income from the permits sold to hunters. From the standpoint of cost effectiveness, it is plain which of these is most practical.
If the parks system finally does announce hunting, timber cutting and burning at Oak Mountain, more than likely we will hear a knee-jerk sentimental outcry regarding plans to ravage Oak Mountain State Park, or any other park where these measures are introduced. However, such accusations can hardly be justified in solid wildlife or forest science.
In fact, the adoption of such measures is simply the price we pay for civilization. We have wiped out the first-degree predators such as cougars, wolves and bears that could prey on deer. Now hunters have taken their places.
We have decided not to allow wildfires to burn through the countryside, so now we need controlled burns to regenerate the woodland.
Rejecting either or both of these ideas promises to destroy the forests we profess to love, as well as the wild critters that depend on them.
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