Sunday, April 27, 2008

Very Hungry Deer

I took this photo at a recent vacation in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Every evening the roadside was filled with deer eating the new spring grass. We saw about 50 deer in twenty minutes. Amazing.

Check out the rib cages on that deer, visible even under the thick winter coat. Ever since the Disney movie "Bambi", doing anything about the deer population has been labeled cruel, as if starving all winter isn't cruel (note we saw the survivors only). Here in Shelton, hunting has only very recently ceased (I remember hearing hunting shots out my back door not too long ago and I still get calls about deer blinds in the open space), so the deer population is presumably rising. Unless our "mountain lion" keeps them under control ;-D.

While walking along some Shenandoah trails I noted how open the forest was - there was nothing for the deer to eat. This is what happens when there are too many deer - they eat every plant they possibly can, and pretty soon all that's left is mature trees and a few plant species they don't like, such as green brier and hayscented fern (a native species that is classified as invasive in areas of large deer populations). This can be catastrophic for forest ecology and the entire food web. When a tree falls over in a storm, there are no young trees to replace it, because the deer have eaten them all. Native insects cannot find the type of leaf they need to eat, and perish. The birds, amphibians, and mammals that survive by eating those insects find that they too are starving. If only there were some way to make the Bambi people care about ALL the species of the forest, not just the cute ones.

On Assateague Island the situation was even worse. They have two deer species (Sitka Elk, technically) as well as the famous wild ponies. The forest was nothing but white pines and greenbrier, and I do mean nothing -- greenbrier as far as the eye could see in every direction.

Several years ago I saw a deer exclusion zone at Bluff Point State Park, protected by fencing, and it was very dramatic. Most of the park looked just like Assateague does now - nothing but mature trees and greenbrier. But within the tiny plots protected from deer, a healthy forest flourished, filled with saplings, shrubs and wildflowers.

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