Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites

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Georgia State Parks Mission
To protect our state's natural beauty and historic integrity while providing opportunities for public enjoyment and education.

Maintaining a Healthy Ecosystem
Maintaining a healthy ecosystem is an overriding goal of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a guiding principle of the State Parks and Historic Sites Division. A healthy ecosystem contains a variety of plants and animals naturally found in its region. All of these exist in the dynamic balance sometimes referred to as the “web of life.”

About Deer and the Situation at Red Top Mountain State Park
White-tailed deer are an enjoyable sight of Red Top Mountain State Park. Visitors have traditionally valued the opportunity to view deer, other wildlife, wildflowers, and the natural beauty of the park. However, the park’s deer population has existed in unnaturally high numbers, resulting in over-browsing that is severely impacting plants needed by other wildlife. In fact, deer have damaged their environment so much that their own health is damaged. Additionally, these unnaturally high deer numbers impact the ability of the Parks & Historic Sites Division to fulfill its mission. As a result, DNR has partnered with the University of Georgia to study deer herd management at Red Top and to recommend a management approach that will ensure a health ecosystem and deer population.

Their Impact
An overabundant deer population can destroy entire plant communities. Deer have a voracious appetite, eating a wide variety of wildflowers, grasses, tress, shrubs, nuts and fruits. As a result, they have the potential to severely alter natural habitats. This affects the ability of forests to regenerate, eliminates habitat for other wildlife and creates an unhealthy herd.

At Red Top Mountain State Park, deer have over-browsed entire layers of vegetation within their reach. In fact, many species of wildflowers and tree seedlings no longer exist in the park. When plants are eliminated, so are the animals that depend on them for food or cover. To make matters worse, deer are now foraging along the roadsides, causing deer-vehicle collisions. In fact, Red Top Mountain State Park experiences an average of 40 deer-vehicle collisions annually.

How Many is Too Many?
Obviously, we want to continue to have deer in our parks. They are a favorite of visitors as well as park rangers. There comes a point, however, when their numbers threaten the existence of plants on which deer and other species feed. Most biologists agree that natural forest regeneration can occur when there are less than 10 deer per square mile. Red Top is thought to have far more than 100 deer per square mile!

Studying the Situation
In 2003, the DNR partnered with the University of Georgia to study deer herd management at Red Top Mountain State Park. Deer exclosures were erected to gather data about plants and animals within the park. Deer cannot enter these fenced areas, but most other plant eaters can. Preliminary results show that nearly half the native plant species expected at the park are no longer there. These biologists are also researching herd reduction methods.

What are the Alternatives?
Do Nothing
This has been the policy for many years, resulting in 1) decline and loss of species, 2) erosion, 3) interference with habitats other animal species, and 4) malnutrition of the deer. Additionally, the forest can no longer regenerate.

Trap and Transfer
This option has been tried in many locations and proven impractical, expensive and overly stressful to the animals. Deer at Red Top Mountain have become so accustomed to feeding on roadsides, that if relocated they would pose the same problems by browsing on the sides of other roads. Plus, few, if any, areas need more deer.

Predator Reintroduction
Reintroducing large predators such as wolves and mountain lions is not a viable solution. Their range is far greater than any park and North Georgia no longer has the habitat suitable to support these predators.

Supplemental Feeding
Even while being fed commercial food, deer will continue to browse. Supplemental feeding is expensive, compounds the problem by promoting more births, and does not fit the DNR’s mission of maintaining a natural ecosystem.

State parks are places where people enjoy seeing animals roam free in natural habitats. Fenced deer are best viewed at zoos and wildlife parks.

Fertility Control
Wildlife biologists have identified the drug Spay-Vac™ as a possible means of preventing deer from reproducing for 5-9 years, possibly longer, with only a single dose. However, birth control is expensive, only reduces the rate of herd growth (not herd size), and is useful only in small, isolated areas. Whether fertility control is useful in other state parks is uncertain.

Lethal Removal of Deer
Reduction of deer populations through hunting, sharp shooting or injection has been proven to be the most effective, efficient, humane and inexpensive way to reduce and manage deer herds. This has been the method of choice of numerous agencies across the country.

How to meet the challenge?
Municipalities, nature centers and numerous state agencies have had to deal with the difficult question of what to do with too many deer. Repeatedly, lethal removal has been chosen as the best course of action. Based on knowledge from the scientific community and studies of how other agencies are handling similar situations, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has concluded that reducing deer numbers is the only way to avoid further damage to Red Top’s ecosystem. It is a difficult decision, but one that provides the most humane, practical and ecologically sound method of restoring our natural resources.

The solution to managing Red Top Mountain State Park’s deer herd is not simple. Many factors must be considered, including deer herd health, ecosystem balance, wildlife viewing and photography opportunities, deer/vehicle collisions, human safety, and varying opinions of what constitutes too many or too few deer. The DNR’s goal is to implement a deer management program that promotes and sustains a healthy ecosystem.

Deer will always be a favorite sight at Red Top Mountain State Park. Hopefully, a balanced management program will allow visitors to watch deer while the natural diversity of plants and animals are restored within the park. It is that rich, diverse and healthy ecosystem from which all future generations, and the deer, will benefit.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources
State Parks & Historic Sites Division
2 Martin Luther King Jr., Drive, Suite 1352 East
Atlanta, GA 30334

Red Top Mountain State Park
50 Lodge Road
Cartersville, GA 30121

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