Bowhunting for deer on the table in Winston-Salem

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Carolyn Fay's garden in southwest Winston-Salem is a tempting prospect for deer wandering up Burke Creek. (photo by Jordan Green)

Winston-Salem could become the largest city in North Carolina to provide an urban bowhunting season for deer.

The slope down to the creek from Carolyn Fay’s house in southwest Winston-Salem is one of the most charming facets of the place.

The winding streets in her 1980s-era subdivision off Burke Mill Road promote a feeling of seclusion even though the houses are wedged closely together. But Fay’s place at the edge of the development accesses a little piece of urban wilderness along the banks of Burke Creek, which runs between the subdivision and a cluster of sylvan medical offices across the west bank. The frogs make a natural symphony when they breed in the spring. And once, Fay spotted a blue heron stepping along the streambed.

The creek plays a vital role in the city’s hydrology, flushing out stormwater runoff from Hanes Mall and Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home, while also providing a thoroughfare for deer wandering upstream. Fay, who retired after 30 years as a costume designer in the dance department at UNC School of the Arts, pointed to a set of deer hooves in the wet ground near the creek on a recent weekday morning.

The deer ravaged her garden, wiping out lettuce, asparagus and tomatoes, along with summer crops of cucumbers, green beans and snap peas. She finally secured the garden with 6-foot horse fence from Tractor Supply Co., but only after unsuccessfully installing three ultrasonic yard sentinels with rabbit fence that proved useless, and military-grade wire, which the deer just barged through.

In addition to eating Fay’s garden, the deer are also causing a hazard for motorists. Several months ago, Fay said, a neighbor hit a deer that lay on Burke Mill Road for three days attracting buzzards before it was removed.

Fay isn’t a hunter and she isn’t interested in killing deer, but she started questioning whether a bowhunting season in the city limits would be a solution to her problem. She reached out to the NC Wildlife Resource Commission. Whatever concerns she might have harbored about safety were quickly allayed.

“Talking to them made me not be afraid,” Fay said. “I thought it sounded like a reasonable, safe and humane option.”

Although Fay lives in the Southwest Ward, which is represented by Councilman Dan Besse, her idea caught the interest of Councilman James Taylor, the Southeast Ward representative who chairs the Public Safety Committee.

Taylor touted the proposal as a recreational opportunity for residents in an interview with City Beat.

“One thing I like about Winston-Salem is no matter where you live and what you’re into, there’s something for you,” he said.

“I represent a district that has an urban core, but also has a rural component,” he added. “Several years ago, we annexed people who might enjoy hunting.”

Councilwoman DD Adams, Taylor’s colleague in the North Ward, also enthusiastically embraced the proposal.

“I believe we can do something good here, provide protein for families that can’t afford to go get — whether it’s steak or Angus or whatever it is,” Adams said during a committee meeting in January. “I also believe we can help feed the homeless in this way, to go give protein.

“I definitely plan to get me some bow lessons,” she added, “because I’m going for it.”

Although the details aren’t fully worked out, Fay said she would like to see a provision in the program for ensuring that some portion of the harvest helps address hunger.

“If we want this to go over as a beneficial act — maybe you keep one [deer] and give one,” she said. “Reciprocity.”

The nonprofit North Carolina Hunters for the Hungry allows hunters to donate legally harvested deer to processors, which in turn provide ground venison to women’s shelters, soup kitchens and church pantries to provide food to underserved individuals and families. The nonprofit reimburses the processors for labor. Among 18 processors across the state that participate in the program, the two that are closest to Winston-Salem are in Greensboro and Madison. According to the nonprofit, hunters donated more than 1,000 deer last year, yielding more than 20 tons of ground venison.

Councilman John Larson, a member of the Public Safety Committee who represents the South Ward, said he remains skeptical of the proposal. He questioned how the city would provide enforcement for minimum acreage guidelines, while noting that the city doesn’t employ game wardens. He said he also worries about the potential for wounded deer to wander across property lines and discomfort residents who may not appreciate hunting.

Taylor said he plans to bring the proposal up for a vote at the next Public Safety Committee meeting in March. If at least two out of four members of the committee — which also includes Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke and Councilman Jeff MacIntosh — approve the measure, it would advance to the full council for consideration.

If city council votes to allow bow-hunting, hunters would be required to shoot down from raised platforms to avoid the risk of stray arrows endangering neighbors.

A total of 61 municipalities in North Carolina allow bowhunting during the urban archery season, from Jan. 12 to Feb. 17, including King and Lewisville in Forsyth County; and Jamestown, Oak Ridge, Pleasant Garden, Stokesdale and Summerfield in Guilford County. Winston-Salem would be by far the largest city to participate in the program, with almost three times the population of Concord, the current leader.

Elkin, a town of about 4,000 people that straddles Surry and Wilkes counties on the Yadkin River, was one of the first to allow bowhunting, beginning in 2004 or 2005, according to Town Manager Brent Cornelison.

“The issue at the time was that we were seeing an overpopulation of deer,” he said. “A lot of them were getting hit on the road. It was causing a lot of problems with eating landscaping.”

There was concern at first because people didn’t know what to expect. But Cornelison said he’s received no complaints about the program, and the hunters tend to be inconspicuous. Most residents don’t even realize the town has an urban archery season, he said.

“Most of the hunters are doing it for food and wildlife management, not for sport,” Cornelison said. “They’re really good about not being seen. You’re using a bow, so you don’t hear gunshots. They’re good hunters, and they’re very respectful.”

Cornelison emphasized that Elkin has a lot of woodland, and people need to determine whether urban bowhunting is right for their municipalities based on each one’s unique factors.

In Winston-Salem, much of the open space clusters along the city’s major stream systems, including Muddy Creek arcing across the west, and Salem Creek, which cuts a diagonal southwesterly path across the south end. The two-stream system’s many tributaries include Burke Creek, which flows past Carolyn Fay’s house. The streams also provide a thoroughfare for the deer.

Forsyth County property records show dozens of sizable properties along Salem Creek, many as big as four acres and at least one at more than 20 acres, that are owned by real estate companies, private investors, a railroad company and the city.

Some municipalities that participate in the state’s urban archery program like North Wilkesboro allow hunting on public property; others, like Elkin, do not. City Manager Brent Cornelison said Elkin prohibits bowhunting on town property because it’s too confusing for hunters to differentiate between types of town property: Hunting in a cemetery might be okay, as long as there wasn’t a funeral; hunting in a public park would never be safe. Regardless, state law requires hunters to get permission from the property owner.

Elkin has no minimum acreage requirement. Council members in Winston-Salem are contemplating a restriction to lots that are a minimum of two, or maybe even three acres.

Randy Hendrix, a bowhunter who lives about a mile outside of Winston-Salem on the southeastern periphery, said he would gladly take the opportunity to hunt inside the city limits if he were able to find a property owner who would grant permission.

“I really think it’s a good idea,” said Hendrix, who has been bowhunting for about 40 years. “They’re overpopulated even in the areas we can hunt. It’s bound to be even triple that in the areas we can’t hunt in the city.” The fact that the urban archery season falls at a different time of the year would also expand opportunities for hunters and processors, he said.

Hendrix said he’s seen five deer killed by cars within a half-mile of his house in the past month.

Considering that deer are nocturnal, most people don’t realize how many there are, he said.

“I guarantee if you put a trail camera out, they would see 10 deer, not just one,” Hendrix said. “There’s way more deer than people realize. You don’t realize how big the population is. You’re not going to do away with them; it’s going to make them more healthy.”

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