White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

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JHarkness
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White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by JHarkness » Wed Jun 20, 2018 1:28 pm

Note the lack of woody undergrowth in this 120-year old second growth forest.
Note the lack of woody undergrowth in this 120-year old second growth forest.
ENTS,

Here in eastern New York, the white tailed deer is a major problem, largely due to our mix of forested and agricultural land, it gives the deer shelter and food in the winter, while providing them with lush green fields during the summer. That said, their populations are not effected when they deplete all of their food in a forest, and that they have indeed done. Deer populations are at an all time high here presently, there are two regular herds in this forest, one consisting of 8-11 deer which does not inflict severe damage, but another herd, which likes to stay in one "open forest" area (open because they've destroyed the understory), has roughly sixty members. During the winter, each herd lost one deer to predators, the small herd has already had three new fawns and I dread to think about how many the large herd now has. To put a perspective on how many deer there are here, I saw both of our herds one day last year, while my father encountered several individuals and another larger herd less than a mile away at almost the same time. Here, "hunters" are no help with the situation, for a number of reasons. One is that they believe the more deer there are the more they have to hunt and are strongly opposed to having the population reduced, another reason is that the hunters here are only after males for their antlers and never shoot females, so the population is generally unaffected, and perhaps the biggest reason why they're no help is because they aren't really here to hunt, but to drink alcohol, ride quads, shoot guns and trespass. Sadly, it seems there are no respectable hunters in the area who are actually trying to hunt deer. It's needless to say, this is a serious issue.

I always assumed the lack of green growth, disappearing understory and compressed soil in my forest were from invasive earthworm damage, but this spring I've administered several mustard powder tests and inspected the duff layer, while there are worms in some places, others are entirely free of them, yet the one location with them and one without look exactly the same. As it turns out, the deer aren't just eating herbaceous forest floor plants and young saplings, they're eating almost anything that's green, including some types of ferns, partridge berry, and even the toxic white snakeroot (my snakeroot hasn't flowered in years thanks to the deer). The damage they inflict isn't just from eating, but can be from a number of their activities, for example, I've seen them using hay-scented fern (which they don't eat) as a bed, I've seen them walking along steep slopes and knocking the majority of the leaf litter out of place, resulting in a lack of leaf litter, duff and organic soil on the edges of such slopes, but thick mats of it farther down, so thick in fact, that they sometimes cover up small seedlings and herbaceous plants, killing them.

But why do the leaf, duff and organic layers show signs of earthworm damage where there are no worms? There are two reasons for this, one, the deer, by means of passing through a site in large numbers (sixty deer in one case) multiple times per day, have a significant effect on soil compression, in fact where there are worms there's more plant life as they aerate the compressed soil and allow water to be absorbed into the soil (as apposed to running off of the hard packed soil and removing more organic material). The other reason, and this can also increase worm damage, is reduced organic material. By destroying the native understory, and causing damage to the midstory, the deer can reduce the amount of leaves and twigs that fall on the forest floor each year by roughly 55-60%, according to my calculations from a study I recently did. That means less shade on the forest floor, and less decaying organic material, both of which reduce the amount of retained moisture causing a more compressed, smaller, drier duff layer and therefore limiting the growth of moisture loving mosses, ferns and clubmosses, which deer generally don't eat, their loss often leads to a greater reduction in moisture retention.

Perhaps the most disturbing effect of all, is that the deer have on forest regeneration. I've document no seedlings between three and fourteen years old yet this year, and I've noticed a severe reduction in the amount of 2-year old seedlings compared to 1-year old and first year seedlings. The majority of the aging monarchs (sugar maple, american beech, white ash, eastern hemlock, black birch) in this forest are in their last century of life, sooner or later, they will all be gone thanks to storms, disease, decay and just plain old age, the midstory trees (almost entirely sugar maple with some scattered beech) will soon take their place, but as of the present, trees that will take their place as midstory trees are far and few between. Male deer can also effect sizeable trees, not by eating them, but by rubbing their antlers on them, I counted eleven partially or completely girdled american beeches and sugar maples in the 6-10 inch diameter range in a one acre area recently, and even the tallest tree in this forest, with a 9' 5" circumference no less, has had some it's outer bark removed thanks to the white tailed deer.

If things continue this way, there could literally not be a forest here in three or four centuries, and what will survive will likely be over run with invasive species, or be made up entirely of them. That's not the future I want for this forest, much of which will become old growth within the next century. I think another really disturbing aspect of this is how recent it is, and yet people believe it's somehow "natural", just fifteen-twenty years ago this forest had a dense understory of hobblebush, maple-leaf viburnum, witch hazel, beaked hazelnut, wild sarsaparilla, american ginseng, striped maple, mountain maple and young american basswoods. The hobblebush, ginseng and mountain maples have disappeared entirely thanks to the deer, and many of the others have dwindling populations, for example our basswoods and striped maples are not able to reproduce currently, or grow new root suckers for that matter. The maple leaf viburnum, which typically grows to 4-5 tall, has been suppressed to a dwarf form rarely exceeding 8 inches in height and rarely flowering, it is only unaffected on the steepest rockiest, hard to reach sites.


Conclusion

I've decided it's time to do something about the deer populations and damage. But the question is what can be done? The only strategies that will really have an effect will be deer exclosures (costly and destructive, not to mention hard to build on such a large property) and hunting of female deer, but that has it's own set of problems. If there are roughly 140 deer that could be spending time in this forest and damaging it each year, what good will killing a couple deer per year have, theoretically it won't even be able to match the amount of fawns born each year to begin reducing the population, it might prevent the situation from getting worse, but it likely won't make it any better. Currently, I think hunting, combined with small exclosures, will be able to make a difference, but it will be a very long time before serious, needed, change happens. Perhaps scare tactics will help to keep them out of this forest at least, but when I've seen them and chased them off before, they just come right back, sometimes even on the same day. Blowdown help protect small areas for seedling and plant growth, so perhaps if that blowdown was combined with some isolated cutting it would help keep deer out of specific areas. Perhaps just going for more hikes will help the situation, for a couple years I hardly went for hikes in this forest and that's when a lot of deer moved in, so perhaps a higher human presence could help scare the deer off, but whether the long terms effects of that are positive or negative can't be determined for several years.

Hopefully this post and the attached article will be able to give anyone here struggling with the same issues insight on them. Or perhaps those who have already dealt with these issues can pass along insight to anyone here (myself included) who might need it.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_ ... 017804.pdf
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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Larry Tucei
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by Larry Tucei » Thu Jun 21, 2018 1:01 pm

We have many Deer in the south as well. The difference is we keep them from over population by long Hunting seasons. Total length is 4 months that includes all types of weapons, Bow, Cross Bow, Muzzle Loader and Gun. In my state we are allowed up to 5 Deer per year 3 Bucks and two Does per Hunter. In addition other areas have separate limits as well. One alternative to hunting would be to bring in some Wolves to help thin the herds as well. Minnesota started such a program several years ago to help with Natural balance. Sounds like your State Wildlife Agency could modify the Season Limits and lengths. I'm no expert but as an avid Hunter proper Herd balance is essential for healthy Deer and for a healthy Forest. Larry

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Don
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by Don » Thu Jun 21, 2018 1:45 pm

Joshua-
Deer damage to NE forests is a familiar topic to me, although I am a westerner by birth and predominant residence. In obtaining my Masters degree at UMASS, I was fortunate enough to obtain a McIntyre-Stennis grant and a Research Assistantship at UMASS. Among the numerous research topics my grant mentor was undertaking, I assisted him in his research on advanced oak regeneration in the Quabbin Reservoir (large reservoir providing significant portion of Boston's water). A prime concern of those who managed the Quabbin watershed was water quality, and public use of the watershed was prohibited (including hunters).

It would seem then that man's presence wouldn't then be a factor in the watershed.

Well it was, though indirectly. Our research plots were fenced in a manner to exclude deer. Without deer 'foraging' in the plots, abundant reproduction (both oak regeneration and other edible shoots occurred, while outside the fenced plots, understory was very sparse due to over browsing by the overpopulation of deer (due in turn to the "underpopulation" of hunters, excluded from the Quabbin watershed).

At the time, it was viewed as the "Bambi effect"...
-Don
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RayA
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by RayA » Thu Jun 21, 2018 2:25 pm

Don,

I was deeply involved in the issue of opening Quabbin for hunting to reduce deer numbers. Their numbers were indeed high, and foresters could get virtually no tree regeneration at all. However, we felt that the continuing and constant cutting that had been going on there was certainly exacerbating the problem (as I'm sure you're aware) by promoting new growth and early successional conditions. We fought for curtailment of cutting/logging and eventual return to old growth conditions, which we argued would be a great way to maintain water quality. Of course, with a firmly established forestry department there, that was not about to happen. We did, however, get management to throw us a small bone and commit about 1200 acres to permanently be a no-cut zone (out of 56,000+ acres).

While our group was researching old growth forest info to bolster our ability to debate the issue, we learned (to our great surprise) that there was this guy with a southern accent living right here in MA who was finding old growth forest remnants here! That was about 30 years ago. I hear he finally made something of himself and went on to national fame (sans fortune) as a cofounder of some fringe group called the Native Tree Society (yeah, I know, pretty corny). Goes by the handle "Dbhguru". Fancies himself a connoisseur of ice cream too. Only in America.

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JHarkness
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by JHarkness » Thu Jun 21, 2018 2:55 pm

Larry,

Hunting regulations here are too strict, I feel, but also rightfully so. There's only one deer season here, and it lasts only two months, bow and rifle hunting are the only allowed types, the bag limit is one buck and it's illegal to hunt does for some reason made up by the DEC (which explains a lot of the population issues here). I feel that they need to replace the turkey season with a second deer season, turkeys are declining here thanks to excessive hunting and a lack of protection (thanks to deer), surprisingly, they still allow the hunting of ruffed grouse in this area, but the species has almost entirely disappeared, there's literally no habitat left for them. The reason for the strictness is the behavior of many of the "hunters" here who feel they have the right to any land they chose, and they want more deer and apparently have been pressuring the DEC (NY State's environmental protection/recreation management agency) to increase deer populations as they think having more deer is better for them. Aside from that, a lot of the local crowd has been known to put up tree stands on private property without permission (often killing the trees, we lost a red maple a few years ago that was approaching old growth status due to this), oh, and let's not forget that these hunters will clear undergrowth and even cut mature trees to either make a road for them to ride their quads on (while drunk) and to attract more deer to hunt, but they typically never get an actual deer because they shoot their weapons every couple minutes for "target practice", as you can imagine, the deer never come close to them, which often encourages them to trespass. Sadly, there are very few honest hunters here, and those that do appear to be honest often have buddies that aren't, the issue here is that if you invite one onto your property, all of a sudden they all get there, and they aren't just hunting illegally, but discharging weapons while drinking alcohol and riding quads through the forests, destroying whatever the deer haven't gotten to yet. I remember a couple years ago some hunters near here shot someones dog injuring it, it ran into a barn that had horses in it, and they trespassed and entered the barn and attempted to kill the dog, because they "thought it was a deer". Another hunter once saw me hiking on my property and trespassed to come over and talk to me, he claimed I was "harassing" him by being there, and that I was breaking the "law" by "harassing hunters on opening day", I told him to get off of my property and explained that he was the only one breaking the law, to which point he started swearing at me and decided to go hide behind a 4-inch diameter red maple for fifteen minutes until he gave up and left. The local hunters are just a bad bunch, and that's a shame as they should be improving wildlife habitat, not destroying it.

As to the predators, we have a lot of eastern coyote (coywolf) here, but they're a bit more of a scavenger than a hunter, and on top of that they prefer to go after my neighbor's sheep versus deer, so they're sadly very little help. I hadn't seen a bobcat in years, but I recently did see one, so they're still around and they will hunt deer (they don't have a lot of alternatives at the moment). Despite what the DEC says, we do have some cougars here and their on the increase. I've seen two in the past couple years, and a neighbor saw one nearby around eight or nine years ago, that is a help, but there just aren't enough of them currently. The disturbing part is that the small deer herd in my forest (rarely destructive) lost one member to predators over the winter, they've so far had four fawns this year, and I suspect that number will continue to rise. I'm hoping they don't turn into another large destructive herd.

Apologies for the long rant, as you can probably tell, people (myself included) don't get along with the "hunters" here very well.
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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JHarkness
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by JHarkness » Thu Jun 21, 2018 3:15 pm

Don, Ray,

I didn't participate in that project, but I am familiar with it, I'm actually not far from Quabbin at all, from what I understand the deer situation there is a lot better now. Fencing is a great idea in theory, but it pressures deer to eat other nearby vegetation, I had the idea of using a "rotational grazing" method, where I would protect a few sites for 5-10 years, then move the fencing and give the deer some forage, I just fear that they could have too much of a drastic effect to what recovers, but perhaps if the undergrowth is in it's natural state they will have a harder time damaging it.

A couple years ago, some fencing was put in on my property to protect a few areas from deer, it wasn't deer fencing, it was regular 4-foot cattle fencing, deer can still get through, but it has had a massive effect on forest regeneration. The way it works is it allows individual deer or small herds to come and go, giving them access to a nearby wetland meadow and a pond, but when large deer herds try to pass through, they feel pressured by the fencing and feel trapped, so they don't jump it. The fence has even worked to complete a natural exclosure along a cliff face, the deer now feel trapped by the fence on one side and the cliff on the other, and they can't see predators, the result is very low deer traffic through the site and woody and herbaceous plant regeneration, the site is now lush green with blue cohosh, white snakeroot, trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, and the white ash on the site is making a major comeback without deer browse. Interestingly, before the fence was put in japanese barberry was spreading everywhere, when deer browse stopped, so did it's spread, some of the plants are even dying of old age now and not regenerating, garlic mustard, once common at this site, has entirely vanished, and as far as I know the invasive earthworms have too. Ironically, the site the fence encloses is very worm damaged, but it has more green growth than anywhere else on the property thanks to the exclusion of large deer herds.

You mention the deer effecting oak regeneration at Quabbin, the irony here is that they've promoted the growth of one type of oak here while eliminating the northern red oak, that one type is the black oak, native to the geographic area, but we have none naturally occurring, all of ours can be traced back to one seed source, which was planted around 200 years ago. Fields abandoned at times when deer populations were high lack birch but have an abundance of black oak, while those abandoned at times when the populations were low are made up almost entirely out of birch and have little to no oak component.

I have two points to bring up about deer that I feel don't get addressed often enough, what if there population increase could partially be due to a loss of competition (elk and moose), or could it be because of a loss of an important food source (chestnuts). I find it interesting that where there still are moose, deer populations aren't as high, and where chestnuts naturally occurred but have since vanished or stopped producing nuts, the deer populations are heavier. I had once read that deer will prefer chestnuts to other nuts, foliage and buds during the fall and winter.
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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Larry Tucei
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by Larry Tucei » Thu Jun 21, 2018 3:44 pm

Joshua- Wow from you description of New York Hunters I can't help but visualize them like in the movie the Deer Hunter back in the 70's. LOL We have lots of Public land here so there is not much trespassing on Private Property. Larry

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JHarkness
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by JHarkness » Thu Jun 21, 2018 3:58 pm

Larry,

There lies the answer, or so it seems. We don't have a lot of public land here, but in areas of New York where there is a lot of public land, people tend to have a higher respect for nature, and the deer hunters there don't behave like our do. Fortunately, more land is becoming state acquired here, but so far it's only worsened the deer issue as the hunters have been feeding deer on these public lands, I've tried to draw the DEC's attention to it, but they continue to ignore it. Fortunately, the US Fish and Wildlife service is trying to acquire some 10,000 acres of wetlands and forest in my town and a couple others to protect it from future housing developments, but now my county government has is trying to argue it so that they can build, guess what, housing developments on that land....
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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JHarkness
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by JHarkness » Fri Jun 22, 2018 10:14 pm

An update on the situation.

I believe I've devised a way of keeping large deer herds out of the more sensitive parts of my forest. As I mentioned before, a low fence combined with several natural barriers put pressure on larger herds and they stopped browsing the plants at that site, the most blue cohosh plants I've ever seen are now growing there with many trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, rock polypody, christmas and marginal wood ferns and an abundance of white snakeroot. This gave me the idea to purchase some cheap plastic deer netting and tie it to trees for support, I plan to buy several hundred feet of it to make a couple small exclosures to protect the most sensitive vegetation (I've recently rediscovered hobblebush in my forest, it was once one of the most common shrubs here but it seemingly disappeared entirely in the early 2000s because of deer browse, I've found a couple small, stunted plants growing in a crack in a boulder). The main idea with the deer fencing is to create a "maze", so to speak, essentially just long unconnected pieces of it at various angles to put pressure on large deer herds to keep them out. Sadly, worm damage to the "old growth" part of my forest (I've confirmed with ring counts that some of the trees here now were growing before any land was cleared here, the largest trees here would have been cut, but the site was never farmed and the forest was allowed to regrow to maturity) are much worse than I previously thought, I just happened to check sites without worms during my initial surveys. Fortunately, I've come up with a way to remove them (or at least reduce their population) and I discovered a completely natural way of killing them in the soil. I'll put up another post about these methods on another thread once I've tested them further and seen when and how plant recovery begins.

Combine that with the fact that many hemlocks have been treated and some ashes soon will be treated as well, for once, the future looks bright!
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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gnmcmartin
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Re: White Tailed Deer Damage to Northeastern Forests

Post by gnmcmartin » Sat Jun 23, 2018 1:39 pm

Joshua:

Thanks for posting this topic. I have been concerned about the deer populations and the damage they do for over 40 years. I try to discuss the problem with the state foresters, but they say they have little or no influence on those who support the "deer protection laws." My timberland is on the Allegheny Plateau in far western Maryland. Most of the essentials of what I am concerned about have been described by others here already, but I will mention just a few points. My neighbor is a cattle farmer--small, breeding just 45 cows. Recently in a 10 acre field he counted 84 deer in the evening. In MD a farmer can apply for permits to shoot a specified number of deer that are damaging crops. This farmer says he loses over 30% of his oats crop every year. In recent years they have upped the number of deer he can get a permit to shoot to 12 per application. But, he doesn't have time to shoot, and utilize, the deer himself, and is unable to find any hunters who will come and shoot them for him under the permit. And, of course, eliminating 12 or even 24 per year, will put just a small dent in the population.

The deer destroy all seedlings on my timberland, except very small birch (both black and yellow) and a few beech, mostly from sprouts. One of my neighbors did a clearcut harvest a few years ago, and 95% of what grew back was birch. Birch can produce fine lumber, but not in my area, where it is infected by a fungal disease. Oak and maple, etc., etc., etc. will be virtually extinct in the not too distant future. Of course, we are losing various trees to disease and insect infestations--you all know the list. But the deer are destroying virtually everything.

No one in a position to do anything about it, will. I am almost 80 years old now, so.... But I regret that the people who come after me won't be able to see any forests like what I saw 40 and 50 and more years ago. I can't believe that no one who can do anything, will. Hunters want deer populations so large that hunting is easy--these are the people who are in control.

Hell, who has to hunt?? I hit them--or they hit me--on the road. The last time I hit one, my Suburban was totaled, and I was stranded some distance from home. Insurance did, strangely, agree to pay for the repairs, which did exceed the value of the vehicle. So, another issue is the danger these critters pose to life, limb, and property. I am afraid to drive anywhere around here over 45 mph at the times the deer are most active.

It seems no one who "matters" cares at all about the threat these deer pose to our health and property, let alone the damage to, or really destruction of, our forests.


--Gaines

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