By Nathan Miller, MEM ‘16
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – You you can find Patrick Smerczynski and Hunterr Payeur on any given day this Fall in the Duke Forest.  Even though most of the forest is temporarily closed to the public five days out of the week, they still come.  They are hunters, not the contracted bow hunters Duke Forest has hired to help reduce their swelling deer population, but hunters nonetheless, and deer meat isn’t their prize.  Instead…it’s deer poop.

Smerczynski and Payeur, both second year Master of Forestry students at the Nicholas School of the Environment, are conducting deer pellet surveys throughout specific sections of Duke Forest to determine where deer eat, sleep, and – yes – defecate.  It is part of their joint master’s project to identify forest management practices can best promote both a healthy forest and a healthy deer population.

“Our approach is pretty multi-faceted,” Payeur says, “We’re looking at how to keep deer out of high-risk areas, such as where vegetated plots meet the road, what variables – plant distribution, shade, temperature – influence where they gather, and how to control the population in the absence of any natural predators.”

With no definitive data on the actual number of deer in the forest, Payeur and Smerczynski have started their project by conducting their own survey.  Whereas previous attempts have assessed the Duke Forest deer population by counting trail sightings before and after the annual reduction program, the two students are hiking off trail, searching for pellets, deer beds, nibbled leaves, anything that may indicate not only the presence of deer, but abundance as well.

“We want to map where they’re feeding, where they’re sleeping, and the paths they use to migrate from one site to another,” Smerczynski says.  Knowing this, he says, will help them apply localized strategies for managing deer populations within the forest.

Payeur and Smerczynski are also sifting through an archive of Duke Forest management strategies that stretch back to Duke’s purchase of the land in 1933.  These archives include vegetation density and species diversity for the park, the locations and dates of clear cuts, which plants were removed or added over the years and where.  If the students find a successful management strategy in the archives appropriate to areas where deer currently congregate, they will apply it to one of their 24 test sites.

“Instead of looking at how deer can negatively impact a forest, we want to explore how we can design the forest to positively impact the deer,” Payeur says.

Though they are still collecting data, one management idea Payeur and Smerczynski have in mind includes the removal of the buffer strip of vegetation between roads and the forest so that deer can better see roads from a distance and subsequently avoid them.

Conversely, most academic literature on forest management emphasizes how an overabundance of deer impairs forest health by stripping underbrush vegetation clean and preventing seedlings from maturing.  Duke Forest is not immune to these stressors either, and with predatory animals long ago removed by humans, hunting still remains an effective means to prevent the deer from overwhelming the forest and exhausting their own food supply.

Though large deer populations can have adverse effects on a forest, Payeur and Smerczynski are hoping to discover how forest management, in addition to population control, can maintain healthy herds of deer, and this dynamic, designing the forest to preserve deer, makes Payeur and Smerczynski’s goals unique.  

“Ultimately,” Smerczynski says, “the success of any management strategy depends entirely on the goals of the forest manager.”

Duke forest is a man-made forest created from reclaimed farmland, they note.  The manner in which the forest has grown and developed over time is the result of the initiatives of its stewards.  This includes decisions like cutting down trees to allow more light to reach the forest floor or clustering seedlings together to increase the health of a species.  Economic benefits of having such a “working forest” can influence management goals too; should Duke ever have the opportunity to trade carbon credits, the large hardwood trees, which sequester and store large amounts of carbon that would otherwise loom in the atmosphere as CO2, could end up generating extra revenue for the university.

“We hope, at the end of all this,” Payeur says, “to find a balance where we provide habitat that effectively serves a fit deer population while also maintaining the quality and condition of the Duke Forest at large.”