By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
-- A select group of bowhunters will again get the chance to chip away at the white-tailed deer overpopulation at Oak Mountain State Park when the first of two hunting sessions is held Dec. 18-19 at the 9,940-acre park near Birmingham.
In 2004, Barnett Lawley, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), decided controlled archery hunts would be the best way to deal with the park's burgeoning deer herd, which had damaged the park's habitat and affected not only the deer but the rest of the wildlife in the park.
Hunters registered online for the hunts and 80 hunters and 80 alternates were randomly chosen for the regulated hunts, the second of which will be Jan. 8-9, 2008.
Lawley said not only do hunters get a chance to pursue their passion for bowhunting, but they also provide valuable assistance to wildlife managers.
"We are very appreciative of the bowhunters who participate in the hunt," Lawley said. "It is a service to the natural resource, the state and deer herd. The overpopulation was the reason we started this hunt three years ago. We appreciate the hunters' time and effort to help in this initiative.
"This is not a trophy hunt. The main goal is decrease the number of deer in the herd to protect the herd and the habitat. We have seen small improvements since these regulated hunts started. When we're able to control populations, it will help the integrity of the park."
Results from hunts during the 2006-2007 season offered a glimmer of encouragement for ADCNR wildlife managers. During last season's hunts, 33 deer were taken - 17 bucks and 16 does.
Forrest Bailey, Natural Resource Manager with the State Parks Division, said 183 deer have been harvested since the program's inception, while another 64 deer were taken out of the herd by animal control experts for a total of 247.
"Most of those deer were donated to Hunters Helping the Hungry," Bailey said of the program (www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/HelpingHungry) that distributes donated venison to various food banks around the state. "Two people have actually come into the park and heard about the hunt that were needy and came into the park and we gave them deer from the cooler.
"We feel like this is a very positive start to bring the population in line with carrying capacity. Weight and percentage of fat conditions appear to be better now than in 2004. However, until the next herd health check is performed, it's really too early to assess herd health based on what we know now."
Bailey did say that park officials and employees have noticed a difference since the hunts started.
"We're seeing more wildflower bloom, more forbs and viny plants that deer prefer to eat that have survived," he said. "We're also seeing more wild turkey and survivability of poults through late spring and summer. Short-term health is much better, but depending on the survivability during fawning season and number of fawns that survive, we're still playing a numbers game with the influx of new animals into the population.
"Management considerations for the future at Oak Mountain include continued herd health checks, vegetative analysis, and a proposed population model study. Common sense, as well as the aforementioned management tools, will continue to aid the State Parks Division in ensuring a diverse and healthy plant and animal community within Oak Mountain State Park."
Bailey said it became apparent in 1999 the deer were damaging the park's habitat. After browse line studies done by Auburn University in 2000 and 2001 showed significant damage, five deer were taken from the herd and tested by the University of Georgia.
"The results indicated a parasitism/malnutrition syndrome, which is somewhat common for white-tailed deer in the Southeast," Bailey said. "We looked at some of the plant species that typically bloom in the spring and they were not (blooming). The deer were just inundating these plant species. We realized at that point that we needed to try to implement some control, some management measures."
Park managers managed pine beetle- and storm-damaged timber canopy openings to stimulate new plant growth, but they also knew the deer herd needed to be reduced.
Chris Cook, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division who specializes in whitetails, said balancing the deer herd with the habitat is a long-term proposition.
"This is a small step in the right direction with a long way to go," Cook said. "This (the regulated hunts) was something new when it was initiated. It has been accepted by the public, for the most part, as necessary to control the herd."