Deer appear to prosper in Charlotte

City ordinances forbid any hunting, effective management

by Frank Deloach and Andrew Batten

A fawn peeks around a deer outside a apartment complex in south Charlotte.

Most people have glimpsed a deer on the side of one of Charlotte’s busy roads or even a group of two or three occasionally standing on the lawn of a home in a forested subdivision street. Does that ever make you wonder how many deer claim a Charlotte address or if anyone is monitoring the size of the deer population? Who do you call if you want to discourage deer that find your garden or shrubbery particularly tasty?

Wildlife specialists say that a square mile of territory can support about 40 deer, but that number is actually larger in urban areas, including Charlotte, where deer have no natural predators and all forms of hunting are prohibited, according to Dr. Jonathan Shaw, the regional biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

So if you go with the conservative average, about 3,760 deer probably live in the 94-square-mile area covered by the North Division of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. But that’s probably a low figure.

Last winter, professional photographer Brian Hochmuth decided he wanted to add more wildlife pictures to his portfolio. So placed some corn and a salt block behind his building at Marquis of Carmel Valley apartment complex, which sits right off busy Pineville-Matthews Road.

Soon deer began regularly appearing in the woods behind his apartment at dusk or early morning. And the word must have spread far and wide.

“I was standing outside my building one night, and a huge herd came through,” Hochmuth said. “I counted 30, but you could only see about half of them. You could hear the others walking through the woods.”

Though the Marquis of Carmel Valley complex sits on four-lane N.C. 51, the apartments also back up to McAlpine Creek near its intersection with Four-Mile Creek. Large swaths of wooded wetlands sit along the Four-Mile Creek Greenway, providing a lot of deer habitat, and McAlpine Creek runs under N.C. 51, giving deer a means of crossing the roadway without having to dodge cars.
Cheree and Fred Culpepper used to live near Randolph and Sardis roads, close to SouthPark. “To be honest with you, we didn’t think much about our impact on the environment or the importance of living in harmony with the various wild critters that share our world before we moved here,” Cheree Culpepper said. “Like many people, recycling was the only conservation effort we engaged in, and then only when it was convenient. It is easy to be so focused on our busy lives, our children, our jobs, that it becomes all about us, and we simply feel inconvenienced at having to slow down for deer to cross the street or angry when a wild animal has the nerve to eat our ornamental shrub.”

Then the couple moved to The Sanctuary, a 1,300-acre community on Lake Wylie developed by Duke Energy’s Crescent Resources for people and as a wildlife refuge. The Culpeppers’ attitude toward wildlife changed. “Watching raccoons play, deer nurture their young, watching the owls raise their babies and seeing them fledge, even seeing eagles fish, has allowed us to step back a bit and recognize the world is bigger than us, and that while we should manage wildlife responsibly, they have a right to be here.”
State law gives the wildlife commission jurisdiction over the deer and other wildlife anywhere in the state. Shaw, the regional biologist, said his agency tries to maintain and monitor deer in urban areas, but “urbanization and local ordinances make deer management difficult in these areas.”

“Deer hunting is still the best and most effective way to monitor and manage deer in these areas, and we are happy to work with city officials to come up with a deer management plan,” Shaw said.

Trapping and removing deer is too expensive and impractical. Bowhunting has proven an effective means of controlling the population numbers. Huntersville is the closest town to Charlotte that permits bowhunting within its town limits, Shaw said. After a debate about hunting in Matthews, that town board decided to allow hunting using permits issued by the Matthews Police Department.

Mecklenburg County sponsors a once-a-year deer hunt at Latta Plantation and Cowans Ford Wildlife Refuge near Mountain Island Lake every November to curb the deer population in the area.

This year roughly 70 hunters killed about 60 deer. Chris Matthews, the county’s natural resources director, said his department encourages hunters to target doe although those hunters would rather go after the males with racks.

“Because we are trying to control the deer herd, we don’t try and limit the hunters especially when it comes to taking doe, because the doe are the ones who have young, Matthews said.

Those hunts have helped keep the Mountain Island area deer healthy, Shaw said. But increasing those hunts to more days wouldn’t necessarily have a greater effect, he said.

“The deer they harvest on those hunts likely helps limit the deer population within a mile of their boundaries,” Shaw said. “Increasing the number of days will result in more deer being harvested to a point. At some point, hunters with increasing days to hunt become more selective and begin to let deer walk rather than pull the trigger on the first doe that comes by.”

The number of deer-vehicle accidents appears to have dropped in recent years, according to the Charlotte Department of Transportation. Debbie Self, manager of the Traffic Safety Section, said the department does not track deer collisions alone, but most incidents resulting in significant damage will involve large animals, usually deer.

The city recorded 354 animal-vehicle collisions in 2007 and 364 in 2008. Then, reported collisions dropped by more than half – to 176 – and through October of this year, the city had recorded 195 collisions.

“My best guess is that overall traffic was down about 5 to 7 percent city-wide in 2008 and 2009. I think, simply put, there were fewer vehicles ‘exposed’ to the deer,” Self said. “We’re seeing traffic volume increase very slightly in 2010, and you’ll notice a slight increase in the animal crashes over 2009 numbers.”

Occasionally, Shaw hears about deer from Charlotte-area homeowner associations, whose members are irritated by deer eating their plants or invading gardens. Homeowners can buy sprays to apply to shrubs that don’t taste good, but Shaw said deer usually get used to the taste and homeowners have to find a different spray product.

Homeowners can plant shrubbery that deer are known to avoid – “unless they’re starving,” Shaw said – but the only practical defense is an “8-foot fence,” the wildlife biologist said.

Residents of The Sanctuary, the Lake Wylie community, asked Shaw’s advice when some residents raised concerns about deer destroying shrubbery or running in front of cars at night. The community sits in Mecklenburg County but outside the City of Charlotte, so residents had the option of reducing the deer population through controlled hunting. But just as a small number wanted to reduce the deer population, a small but equally vocal group opposed any killing of deer, according to Cheree Culpepper, who led The Sanctuary’s Wildlife Committee.

Shaw visited The Sanctuary, and after seeing some of the deer and walking some of the land, he told the Wildlife Committee that the deer are healthy and not yet overpopulated. But he also advised the committee that in coming years, the property owners might need to use controlled hunting to avoid the problems that come with a growing deer herd – lack of food, disease and harmful side effects to other animals. The Wildlife Commission also held helpful seminars for residents, suggesting shrubbery that deer like and dislike and also explaining that smaller animals such as squirrels and rabbits are often the culprits, not deer.

As Culpepper talks about issue, she can see seven deer gathered in her backyard. “We love the deer, but we also learned the important of having some sort of land management plan,” she said. “If you don’t have a plan, then deer can become a problem that affects the large eco-system.”

Officials at Hawthorne Management Co., which oversees 246 communities in the Charlotte area, said they don’t remember many complaints about deer.

But Chris Miller, one of Hawthorne’s association managers, knows about one exception. Not too long ago, a deer apparently saw its reflection in a double-glass door at the back of a home in Almond Glen, a townhome community on Harrisburg Road between Pineville and Fort Mill.

The deer crashed through the glass pane and then thrashed around the room, causing quite a bid of damage, and then bolted out of the same broken glass door, Miller said. No one was injured in the incident, but the door caused quite a bit of damage, Miller said.
Culpepper advises Charlotteans to take the time to appreciate the wildlife around them.

“We love watching the fawns and their moms,” she said in an e-mail. “We have regulars that we have named, and they get to know us and don’t bolt at the sight of us. … We have learned much about their habits of staying in female or bachelor groups except during mating season, what they like to eat, and have recognized by observation that they intrude on their human neighbors only out of necessity.

“… Folks don’t have to go to a nature preserve, a national park or the Carolina Raptor Center to enjoy nature and find a sense of wonder in observing wild animals. Often they simply need to slow down enough to notice and compassionate enough to care.”

A fawn peeks around a deer outside a apartment complex in south Charlotte.

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