It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. This is a tale of two forests, one with too many deer and one without. Interestingly enough, both of these forests are at the Audubon Community Nature Center.
Around ten years ago, Audubon volunteers installed an eight-foot high fence around a small section of forest. It is called a deer exclosure, since it is meant to keep the deer out. It traps nothing inside except the occasional college student doing plant research.
This small, enclosed section of forest has slowly become very different from the surrounding forest. Plants that don’t grow commonly elsewhere have sprouted up there. Wildflowers are taller than their neighbors outside the fence. Shrubs and young trees shoot up toward the sky. Inside the fence is an overgrown medley of riotous plant life.
Outside the fence it is completely different. Flowers are shorter, cowering on the ground. Most young trees and shrubs are trimmed off at knee height by starving, winter deer that are desperate for any morsel of winter food, no matter how unpalatable.
It is such a dramatic difference that Audubon volunteers installed two more deer exclosures last summer so that visitors to different parts of the property could see the dramatic affect that deer have on local habitats.
The difference is truly dramatic. A program at Audubon last spring showed that too many deer in one spot negatively affects a habitat for decades.
I think about that while hiking the trails at Audubon in the mornings. It is not unusual to pass numerous small groups of deer. There might be three deer here, six deer there and another five deer elsewhere. That’s a lot of deer. It makes you wonder how many deer are actually at Audubon.
Senior Naturalist, Katie Finch, has been helping Audubon’s Land Use Management Committee measure the impact of deer on our property. Using a scientific protocol that involves counting browse marks and piles of scat, the indicators in the habitat show an impact of 21-30 deer per square mile.
Research shows that local habitats can only support around twelve deer in that area before being negatively impacted by the deer eating the forest. It is visible in the huge number of ferns in the forest that deer don’t eat. It is visible in the 25-year-old trees that are knee-high from deer repeatedly eating their tops. It is visible as you look at the pine trees in the forest and realize every needle that the deer can reach is eaten.
The difference in a hunted forest is easy to see. Some of the best forests to look for spring wildflowers exist on state game lands and other places where there is some level of hunting. Hunting prevents the deer population from growing so large that the deer eat themselves out of a beautiful habitat.
Deer hunting season is upon us. For me, this means several things.
First, I start wearing my orange hat everywhere I go outside, just to be on the safe side. The several accidental shootings last year made me re-evaluate how often I wore orange. I now wear my bright orange hat on public and private land alike, regardless of whether there is hunting there. I bring out my orange hunting vest in places where I know hunting is permitted.
Second, it is time to thank the hunters. They brave cold weather, rain, and snow to hunt deer each fall. They are rewarded by a full freezer of meat, but also provide a valuable ecological service.
They replace the wolves and mountain lions of the past that used to hunt deer and keep nature in balance. The areas that have the most hunters are often some of the most beautiful and diverse forests around. (Not to mention that some of the money spent on hunting returns to the land as conservation dollars.)
Hunters provide a valuable ecological service by lowering the deer population to levels the forest can sustain. When the deer population grows too high, the deer suffer as much as the forest. While it takes a trained eye to see a suffering forest, it is not hard to see a suffering deer. Ribs show through ragged coats by the end of winter. The bodies of tiny starved deer melt out of snowdrifts in the spring. Thin deer stop running from me while I hike nearby, wary of wasting precious energy stores. By winter’s end, the deer seem to lose that precious joy of life that leaves them leaping through the landscape at speeds I can only imagine.
Remember, this deer season to wear your orange and, if you are like me and love to hike through amazing diverse forests, thank a hunter for helping to make that possible. There are two forests out there, the hunted forest and the under-hunted forest. I know which one will be the most interesting for me to hike in all year round.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Community Nature Center.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. No hunting is allowed on the property. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.