State Park Deer Hunting Era Begins In Georgia

State announces new state park hunts on Hard Labor Creek, Red Top Mountain and Richard B Russell state parks.

Roy Kellett | July 1, 2005

A few years ago, state wildlife biologists recognized a very serious problem on Red Top Mountain State Park in Bartow County: the deer population had reached critcal mass.

With booming growth in metro Atlanta, there is a sharp line between developed areas and park boundaries, meaning Red Top became a sanctuary for deer and other animals. Continuing growth has only served to exacerbate the problem. When the deer herd was allowed to grow unchecked for so many years, it caused the entire biological makeup of the park to suffer.

In short, the deer herd on the park had outstripped the carrying capacity of the land. As a result, the available forage had been decimated, and because most of the woods on the park were late-succession, closed-canopy growth, very little sunlight could reach the forest floor to generate new plants to serve as deer browse.

The park’s deer, which were a draw to families just wanting to take a drive to look at wildlife, were starving because they had effectively destroyed their own habitat.

Georgia Parks officials opened three state parks for special hunts in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 deer seasons. One object of the hunts will be to reduce deer populations, and one rule will require hunters to take an antlerless deer before taking a buck.

Anyone who knew what to look for could see that every available leaf, seed, nut, or twig was gone up to about four feet off the ground. This visible line between growth and no-growth is what biologists refer to as a browse line. Not only does the lack of browse affect deer health, it takes away food sources and habitat for small animals and many species of birds.

Dr. Robert Warren, professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia’s Warnell College of Forest Resources, said a deer herd that is too large has an impact on every living thing in the environment.

“A chronically overabundant deer herd can really detrimentally affect an entire ecological system,” Robert said. “Even down to amphibians, who use the understory for leaf litter that creates a micro-habitat.”

In a first-time move, the DNR’s Parks and Wildlife Resources divisions will hold quota hunts to give hunters a chance to take deer, and help control deer populations on Red Top, Hard Labor Creek, and Richard B. Russell.

John Bowers, a senior wildlife biologist with WRD, says the hunts provide hunters with a new opportunity.

“This is a ground-breaking thing for hunters, and I hope a bunch of people take advantage of it,” John said.

John also pointed out that because of hunting’s less-than-politically-correct nature, hunt participants should be on their best behavior.

“A lot of people are going to be interested in how this works out,” John said.

Vic VanSant, region III game management supervisor said he would be interested to see how the public — including hunters, reacts to the parks hunts.

“I hope a lot of people are going to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Vic. “I think a bunch will apply, and I hope they have a great experience.”

Vic said having the hunts is a big step for the state and proves hunting’s worth as a wildlife-management tool. He said opening the hunts was a big step for parks officials.

“They are to be commended for using hunting as a means to manage their wildlife,” Vic said.

Robert agreed.

“It almost runs agains the grain for parks personnel to kill something because they preserve and conserve areas,” Robert said, explaining how meticulous the division was in putting together its data for promoting hunting as a management tool.

Hunts for each location are scheduled for the 2005-06, and the 2006-07 deer seasons. An application for the hunts will be printed in the August issue of GON, and in this year’s copy of the Georgia Hunting Regulations magazine, which will be available in August.

At Hard Labor Creek State Park, firearm, either-sex hunts will be held November 15-16, 2005, January 10-11, 2006, and again on January 9-10, 2007. A quota of 250 hunters means plenty of Georgians can get in on the action. On the Hard Labor Creek hunts, participants can take a buck only after they harvest an antlerless deer.

Richard B. Russell State Park will host 80-person quota hunts for the handicapped November 18-19, 2005, and November 17-18, 2006. General quota hunts will be held January 8-9, 2006, and January 8-9, 2007. The firearms, either-sex hunts will also require hunters to take an antlerless deer before harvesting a buck.

The hunts on Red Top Mountain are scheduled for January 10-11, 2006, and January 9-10, 2007. Hunters drawn under the 25-person quota may use only shotguns with slugs on the Red Top hunts.

Each hunter drawn under the quota system must attend a mandatory safety meeting the evening before the hunt for which they are drawn. Also, each hunter will pay a $25 fee to hunt, as well as any charges incurred for the use of park campgrounds, cottages, or other facilities.

Unlike other state quota hunts, such as the primitive-weapons hunt on Ossabaw Island, past rejections will not be taken into account during the separate quota drawing process.

GON wanted to take a look at each park to see what hunters could expect if they are drawn for one of the upcoming parks hunts.

While each park is in the northern part of the state, where mixed hardwoods and pines are the predominant forest landscape, each has subtle differences that successful hunters will use to their advantage.

Hard Labor Creek: Hard Labor Creek State Park sits on more than 5,800 acres of land in Georgia’s piedmont region. The park, which contains a golf course, horseback riding areas, picnic areas, pavillions, and camping, has seen its share of deer-herd growth issues.

A paved county road that bisects the park has been the site of many deer-car collisions. WRD senior wildlife biologist Nick Nicholson says the damage to the park by an overpopulated deer herd is not at the levels of Red Top Mountain. But if left alone, the herd could produce similar understory depletion and suffer health problems on Hard Labor.

Nick explained that it is very common to see deer all over the park, and it’s easy to see how many deer are there.

“We have been doing deer management  for many, many years,” Nick said. “We know that on that big a piece of land in the Piedmont, if deer are not hunted, they will eventually exceed their carrying capacity.”

Last spring, students from the UGA’s forestry program conducted a vegetation survey at the park for their senior-class project. They compared Hard Labor Creek to B.F. Grant WMA, which hosts quota hunts several times a season, to determine the distribution and relative degree of habitat damage on the park. The students theorized that if there were more deer than an area could support, there would be a lack of preferred forage among the forest’s understory vegetation.

By working on the two pieces of property, the students found their hypothesis to be correct. A lack of plants such as greenbriar and honeysuckle in the woods at Hard Labor told the students there were too many deer there.

Robert says understory studies are good early indicators of an overabundant herd.

“It’s interpretable like a canary in a mineshaft,” Robert related. “A lack of the deer’s preferred forage is a strong early indicator that there are too many deer for an area to support.”

Hard Labor Creek will have plenty of huntable terrain to offer everybody. WRD wildlife biologist Don McGowan said most of the property on Hard Labor is vastly wooded.

“There aren’t many openings except around the facilities,” Don said.

Most of the property is mixed pines and hardwoods, with some pure hardwood stands. Still, some habitat-management activities around the park make it better for deer.

“It’s typical Piedmont habitat,” Nick said. “There are some hardwood hollows and hills. Some forest-management practices have been done to help in a few areas.”

Some of the timber on Hard Labor has been thinned in past years, and the park has employed controlled burns to help understory regrowth.

Some of the park is open pine/hardwood areas, but some of the pine stands have had southern pine beetle problems in the past. Cutting those areas left openings which subsequently grew in thick with brush.

Also, because the park is not burned frequently, a mid story has been allowed to develop over a period of years. The leaves should be off the trees by the time of the first hunt, but there will still be plenty of woody cover for deer to move around in.

“There is definitely some thick cover for guys who like to hunt those kind of areas,” Nick said.

Still, the property is mostly wooded to some degree. So what can hunters expect? It depends on whether you get drawn for the November hunt or the January hunt.

Nick guessed hunters should concentrate on the mast crop to find an area to hunt at Hard Labor Creek. But a lot of how successful that is depends on this year’s acorns.

“At that early hunt, there will still be some acorns on the ground,” Nick said. “And there is certainly a lot of mast crop production capability on that property.”

During the later hunt, hunters could still key on acorns if they haven’t all been eaten by then. Or it might be productive to head back to the thick stuff.

Except for designated safety zones around the park, the entire property — including the golf course — will be open for hunting. As of presstime, the limit of the safety zones had not been finalized, but according to Park Manager Bruce Roper, they should not be very restrictive. Safety zones will be clearly marked in the field and will be discussed with hunters at the mandatory pre-hunt safety meeting.

Red Top Mountain: Covering a little over 1,500 acres on the banks of Lake Allatoona, Red Top Mountain State Park gets lots of visitors. And for the past few years, the park got lots of press because of its suffering deer herd. If there was a “poster child” as a reason for holding special hunts, Red Top was it. Increased efforts to manage the deer herd in recent years have definitely been a step in the right direction.

After the removal of more than 200 deer over two years by Wildlife Services sharpshooters, estimates show the population to be down 80 percent from where it had been. While that might sound drastic, it is good for the herd.

Robert reports that data taken from deer during two herd reductions show a nearly 20-lb. increase in the body weight of adult does (1 1/2 years and older). At the same time, there was an increase of 45 percent in the reproductive performance of does from 1.1 fetuses per deer in February of 2004, to 1.6 fetuses per deer in February of 2005.

“Reducing the herd causing an increase in the nutrition and reproduction… this is not new science,” Robert said. “What we were surprised at was the rapidity of the improvement.”

Ted Touchstone, wildlife biologist for WRD says the management efforts that have benefitted the park’s deer herd will also benefit hunters who get drawn for the quota hunts.

“The cover is in the process of coming back,” Ted said. “It’s not all the way back, but there is more cover now than there was two years ago.”

Red Top Mountain, like most areas of north Georgia, is a mixed pine and hardwood forest set on rolling hills. Some areas of the park go from rolling to downright steep.

In recent years, selective thinning of timber and prescribed burns have helped the area’s forest growth, and no doubt allowed some browse to grow. Other areas, which were affected by pine beetles might have seen some thick regrowth as well.

While hunters can concentrate on typical deer food sources, such as acorns, when hunting on Red Top, David Gregory, senior wildlife biologist for WRD says hunters should study a topograhipcal map and get a feel for the lay of the land on Red Top.

Specifically, he suggests looking for natural drainage areas when searching for a place to hang a treestand.

“These drains are low, they get more water, and they will have a little more growth in them,” David said.

By setting up on a drain, a hunter will be able to watch as deer, who typically like to move through low-ground spots. Depending on wind conditions, a hunter might employ a setup at the top of a drainage area, the bottom, or one side.

Less than half of the Red Top Mountain State Park property will be open during the hunts. Keith Fleming, park manager of Red Top said hunters would have access to almost all of the southern end of the park, except for lands owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“There will be a portion open on the northeast side of Red Top Mountain Road,” Keith said. “The hunting area will cover basically everything south of Webster Landing Road, including the Iron Hill area.”

ATVs will not be allowed on the Red Top Mountain hunt.

Richard B. Russell: Another park on a peninsula, Richard B. Russell State Park will be open to 80 hunters on the quota hunt dates.

Hunters will be able to access most of the park property when hunts are held, according to park manager Keith Whitaker. The practice has worked fine during past handicapped hunts at the park.

“Usually, we close the whole park during hunts,” Keith said.

Russell’s 2,200 acres might be more varied than the woods on Hard Labor Creek or Red Top Mountain, in that there are some fields, including those that are planted.

The woods are still mixed pines and hardwoods. And the approximately 50 acres of fields makes late-season hunting a real challenge for those looking for the right spot.

Vic said mast production would play a critical role in how hunters approach the woods on Richard B. Russell.

Vic explained that a heavy mast crop might supplement a deer’s diet into late winter. The question is, how good will the mast crop be this year?

For Vic to guess would be tough at this point. However, he did say that mast production had been good lately.

“Five out of the last seven or eight years, we have had very productive mast crops,” Vic said. “Still, that might vary from one county to another in a given year.”

Typically, a heavy mast crop one season means less the next year. After last year’s massive acorn production, this season is likely to see less.

Vic said the woods at Richard B. Russell, like most Georgia woods, contain several varieties of oak tree. On the park, most of them are white oaks and water oaks.

A dearth of acorns during the January hunts could mean higher success rates for hunters.

“If the acorns are gone, the deer might be on the move,” Vic said. “The best way to find deer will be to figure out what they are feeding on that time of year.”

Deer might be keying on natural browse in the cold days of January. And the park’s fields might be a good place to start when making a plan for your hunt. After freezing temperatures, many deer food sources become sweeter, attracting more deer.

“Some of those fields have fescue in them,” Vic said. “Even though fescue isn’t the best quality, they might be after it.”

Some of the other open fields in the park are full of rye and clover, deer favorites.

“They’ll definitely use those fields that time of year, especially right at dark,” Vic said.

Of course, you can take a look at any of the three parks this summer, even if you don’t know that you’ll be drawn for one of the state-park quota hunts. Anybody can buy a park pass and do a little exploring to see what the woods look like and what the deer are up to.

Applications for the state-park quota hunts will be in the next issue of GON, and the state hunting regulations book, due out in a few weeks.

For more information about the special hunts to be held over the next two seasons, call Hard Labor Creek at (706) 557-3001, Red Top Mountain at (770) 975-0055, or Richard B. Russell at (706) 213-2045.

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