Visitors to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina often see wildlife – not including the ones headed for slot-machine seats inside Harrah’s – and thanks to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, they’ll be seeing more whitetail deer in the near future.
Visitors to the Qualla Boundary land trust’s 82 square miles in Swain and Jackson counties often spot black bears and wild turkeys, along with small game, plus the trout fishing can be phenomenal. They’ll see deer thanks to Principal Chief Michell Hicks, the first member of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission who is a Native American, who has helped cut a deal to rebuild Cherokee’s deer herd.
The Eastern Band of Cherokees is cooperating with the Commission, the N.C. Division of State Parks and the National Park Service to bring deer to the reservation.
“It’s a cooperative project unlike any seen in North Carolina,” said Brad Howard, the Commission’s private-lands coordinator.
The deer will come from MorrowMountainState Park, a 4,000-acre park on the western bank of the YadkinRiver adjoining Lake Tillery, which current contains a deer herd with an estimated density of 80 per square mile.
“The deer herd is OK, at the top end of the habitat’s carrying capacity,” Howard said.
Using tranquilizer darts, Commission personnel have immobilized deer, boxed them individually and transported them by truck to Cherokee, a 4 ½-hour drive. The animals were held for two weeks at a 4-acre acclimation pen then released into the wild.
“We’ve primarily been after does,” Howard said. “We’ve moved 28 deer, including just three bucks.”
Currently, the Cherokees have three goals: help rebuild the deer herd inside the Boundary give children a chance to see whitetails in a natural setting; and reclaim the close relationship the tribe always has had with deer, which have been an integral part of the tribal history and culture.
“I don’t think right now there are any plans to allow hunting of deer,” Howard said. “Currently, deer hunting isn’t allowed at the reservation. The Cherokees aren’t against hunting; they could allow deer hunting. They turkey and bear hunt on the reservation. There are just no plans in the short term to have deer hunting.”
Howard said he thought the tribe wanted to have enough deer that the animals would lure visitors, similar to the opportunities for wildlife viewing at Cades Cove in the Great Smokies. More visitors come to Tennessee’s Cades Cove than any venue inside the national park.
“All the adult deer will be radio-collared,” he said. “Hopefully, the does will have fawns, and multiple deer will move out in individual family groups and set up ranges close by”.
The deer-transfer target is 25 to 50 deer annually for the next three years.
The Cherokees, under the direction of Mike Lavoie, already have been creating better wild-game habitat for several years.
“They’ve implemented some timber thinning, controlled burns and planted food plots,” Howard said. “But they have the same challenges everyone else has with multiple land habitats. They’re trying to implement a more holistic habitat plan and have a long-range goal for diverse habitats. Western North Carolina actually has some pretty high deer densities at lower (elevation) private lands, and the Cherokee land has some similar characteristics.”
The Commission has tested Morrow Mountain deer, scheduled for release at Cherokee, for diseases including Chronic Wasting Disease. CWD has not been detected in any tested deer in North Carolina.