Researchers from a number of institutions use the Duke Forest as an outdoor laboratory to conduct studies in the natural sciences. Community members flock to its trails to walk, jog or hike.
In recent years, parts of the 7,000-acre forest have been plagued by an overpopulation of white-tailed deer, which are threatening not only some research projects but the overall ecology of the forest, said Judson Edeburn, the forest's resource manager.
"Several years ago we collected deer population data which indicated as high as 80 deer per square mile in some areas of Duke Forest," Edeburn said. Recommended population levels are between 15 and 20 deer per square mile.
"Because the mission of the forest is to serve as a research and teaching facility, we need to provide an environment where people can do research on natural ecosystems. And if the deer have degraded the habitat significantly, then its potential to support certain research and teaching activities is diminished."
The deer present other problems. They feed on herbaceous plants, tree seedlings and saplings, which slows forest regeneration and degrades the habitat for ground-nesting birds and other animals. Electrical fences have had to be built around some projects, increasing the research costs. Additionally, there has been an increase in tick-associated diseases and the deer pose a danger to motorists along the roads that border the forest.
As has occurred in many other regions of the country, Duke is taking steps to reduce the deer herd in parts of the forest. It has made arrangements with two local, well-trained hunting groups to cull the deer population, an effort that will be administered under North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission guidelines.
Similar herd reductions have been conducted in Biltmore Forest, Bald Head Island and Nags Head in North Carolina as well as at a number of locations in other states. Hunting also takes place in a number of other research forests, including those of N.C. State, Cornell, Yale and Harvard universities, Edeburn said.
"Because Duke Forest is used by researchers, students and the public, this will be done under very controlled conditions, using bait and away from research and recreation areas," Edeburn said.
All nearby land owners have been notified of the hunting dates, and notices will be posted at entrances to the forest, which will be closed on the days that hunting takes place. Hunting days will be limited.
Hunting will be done Monday through Thursday, beginning the week of Sept. 15.
The deer meat will go to either the hunters themselves or to a local "Hunters for the Hungry" program, Edeburn added.
Duke conducted a similar but smaller effort three years ago, and no problems were reported, Edeburn noted.
The Duke Forest is divided into six divisions in Alamance, Durham and Orange counties. A variety of ecosystems, forest cover types, plant species, soils, topography and past land use conditions is represented within its boundaries. The forest has been managed for research and teaching purposes since the early 1930s. More information about the forest is available at http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/forest/.