Ft. Yargo to thin deer population

WINDER - Ft. Yargo State Park will hold the first deer hunt in its 52-year history next week.

Increased construction in the surrounding area has caused deer to take refuge in the park, where there are no natural predators. Because the park's size can't support the increased population, many deer suffer from hunger.

The first hunt will be held Wednesday and Thursday, and another will take place Jan. 3 and 4.

"Barrow County has changed so much," park manager Eric Bentley said. "There's not as much hunting going on and the area around the park is being developed for subdivisions. Ft. Yargo Park is an island for deer."

During a recent spotlight survey, park officials discovered an estimated 250 to 300 deer living inside the park's 1,814 acres. Normally, deer thrive at about 15 to 20 per square mile. Bentley estimates Ft. Yargo is attempting to support about 75 to 80 per square mile.

Even with regular nutritional feedings, the food supply doesn't stretch far enough to adequately feed the deer.

"We plant food plots and they just mow them down," said Bentley, who often spots 40 to 50 deer per night in his yard. "They get up in the surrounding subdivisions and eat people's flowers. We give them a mix of oats, wheat and nutrients. Still, the natural food supply ran out in February and some of the deer looked decimated. Fortunately, we had an early spring."

The state park service recently spent about $500 to plant 40 Leland Cypress trees along the park's entrance. Foraging deer stripped them down to nubs. Not only is the overflowing deer population aggravating homeowners, it is proving dangerous to drivers.

"There are no natural predators here," Bentley said. "Just cars. The area around Highways 81 and 11 have some of the highest incidents of deer/car crashes in the state.

The park will close to the public during the hunting weekends. Only 65 hunters per weekend, chosen in an August lottery, will be allowed past its gates. No-hunting zones are marked off to protect the Cedar Crest Subdivision, Publix, Barrow County Leisure Services Department and Phillip H. Grace Group Home that surround the park.

Winder Police Sgt. David Garrett, a 20-year veteran hunter, will participate in the unlimited hunt.

"It's never been hunted and I'm excited about the quality and quantity of deer," Garrett said.

Bentley expects each hunter to bag at least one deer. Hunters for the Hungry will have a check station on site to accept any deer that hunters wish to donate. Sealey's Deer Cooler in Jefferson will process the meat, then deliver it to the Athens Food Bank.

"If 125 to 130 are taken, I would consider it successful," Bentley said. "We want to get rid of eating mouths."