Friday, July 16, 2010

Deer like Aster patens

I noticed it two years ago, a few months after a great fire season: heavy deer browse on good, conservative woodland plants. I started making a short list back then, just to prove a point that we were beginning to have a serious deer problem in some of Missouri's best tracts of woodlands. No one thought it was possible, a deer problem in the land of poaching and the thousands of contiguous acres of burned woodlands, nature's food plots galore. A few years ago, there were plenty of woods to go around, plenty of space for deer herds to browse gently to a degree that it wouldn't even be noticeable. But in three years, all that has changed. How could the deer population possibly explode in the lower Niangua Basin, of all places?

Leave it to changing land uses (development) and a changing demographic (fewer hunters, more vacationers) to impact biodiversity in the part of Missouri that attracted me here in the first place.

All summer it's felt like a losing battle. I'm documenting deer browse, collecting data from 15, 10 and 1 year old deer browse exclosures (my spell check always wants to change the word to "enclosure," like a deer trap) to compare to paired sets of equal sized areas marked with bare fenceposts. When I launced into this effort, I was warned that in the most extreme situations, deer so desperately want the plants inside the exclosure that they'll try to leap in, sometimes injuring themselves by ending up spread eagle on the chicken wire-cattle panel fencing. I'd have to deal with that somehow, me and my clipboard, mechanical pencil and Steyermark 63. So far, I haven't seen that happen and I hope I never do.

What I have seen has been gruesome enough. I've seen erect forbs turned into little shrubs with no chance of flowering. I've seen monocultures of Verbesina helianthoides in areas that once touted a plant list of over 252 species in the 1980s. Aster patens, Apocynum cannabium, and Solidago ulmifolia have been hit really hard by deer, and those are just the some of the plants that haven't been browsed to the indistinguishable nub. Poor Psoralea tenuifoliua. It doesn't have a chance in areas with a deer problem. I discovered one thick, fleshy leafless stalk in my comparison tract that had no leaves left, but a milky sap, which helped me key it to "a plant with a milky sap."

In deer-infested areas, I've seen that goat's rue runs wild at the expense of other woodland plants. Grasses are really enjoying the explosion of Missouri's deer herd: Brachyelectrum erectum and Bromus purgans stands are ultra-thick, almost fescue field-thick in some places. Ironically, scrolling through Etsy's catalog of "nature photography," I've seen countless photos of woodlands with an obvious deer browse line and an understory of nothing but ferns. The pictures, mostly taken in Eastern states, are full of green, yes, but they're not what they're titled; woods with deer problems are not a "Forest Primeval" nor a "Beautiful Woodland," just as an overgrazed Niawathe Prairie with nothing but S. graminifolia and fescue is not a Natural Area quality prairie.

Biodiversity doesn't have a chance with deer numbers as high as they are in Missouri. I'll have to really learn my sedges (which deer don't like) and maybe install cattle panel-chicken wire exclosures around every woodland with an average FQI of 4 or more. Orscheln's has a great price on cattle panels, by the way.

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