Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Damaged Systems

Because I love the Ozarks, I try to share pretty pictures of the Ozarks, nice flowers and landscapes, pictures that I take with a $100 point and shoot camera that's so old the model number and maker's name has rubbed off. I spent the day with trusty fieldmates in typical Ozark woods today, woods with a long grazing history, no fire in 80 years, and woods with a serious deer problem. I don't think I've ever posted pictures of overgrazed/deer problem/no fire woods, probably because they're really quite terrible to see and I try not to spend time there, but considering that there are thousands and thousands of acres of woodlands in the Ozarks that can be characterized this way, I made a conscious effort to photograph them. It's difficult, taking photos of damaged landscapes--what do you focus on in a homogeneous system with no diversity? And at what ISO speed? These systems are closed canopy woodlands with no light, so even 400 didn't allow enough light for crisp photos. My pictures are blurry. And ugly. So I thought I'd share.

We set out today on a wild goose chase, driving from the state's urban centers to Bollinger Co. to look for a single plant that hasn't been recorded in Missouri since the late 1800s. Stepping foot into the unburned overgrazed deer problem woods, you could see the browse line and the monoculture of Desmodium nudiflorum in the understory. I realize this is an old saw, writing about cows and deer and the damage both have caused to Ozark landscapes. But this time the old saw comes with images!

The browse line was evident immediately. Wild azaleas were common here in the dry sandstone woodlands, but none of the plants were the erect shrubs they're supposed to be. The azaleas, dogwoods, maples had all been browsed repeatedly for so many years that the shrubs and saplings were prostrate on the ground, multibranching, vining plants. No white oak regeneration at all, as deer tend to favor white oaks. We passed through the deer hunting camp to get here and saw the deer stand (and ears of corn left behind from illegal baiting). Diffuse hunting alone will not effectively manage a deer herd that is so desperate for winter food that the herbivores do this to an Eastern red cedar:

That cedar will never mature into a full grown tree. Neither will this maple:

A short list of plants that deer do not favor: Gillenia stipulata, Goat's rue, D. nudiflorum, Cunila organoides, hog peanut. When these are the dominant plants in a woodland to the exclusion of a rich heterogeneous matrix of woodland flora, there's likely a deer problem. If there's not a deer problem, then the woods have been grazed to hell by domestic livestock that there may be no semblance of biodiversity left.

But the deer problem can be remedied. The damage caused by 80 years of open range grazing by cows, sheep, goats, and hogs can't be fixed. Soil erosion caused by grazing by domestic livestock is irreversible. We saw grazing damage today, too, of course: chert overburden covered in moss and lichen because there's no soil left to support vascular plant life. Fire can't help woodlands that are damaged to this degree. And deer don't really like mosses very well, so, much like the vascular plants that are unpalatable to deer, moss and lichen will continue to spread over the bare rock that is artifact of a long grazing history, along with the Virginia creeper and the rest of the woodland flora that cows left behind and deer don't like.

So where does fire fit into the picture? Yes, fire remains the most effective management tool for restoring woodlands in the Ozarks. However, in the past few years, I've visited several or more sites that have used fire in an attempt to restore an ecosystem, but either the fire wasn't hot enough to kill canopy trees to allow light to the floor (so no light comes in, nothing grows in the understory) or the systems are so damaged beyond repair and they have a deer problem that burning repeatedly actually damages the system even more. A good example of this second case can be seen in the woodlands at Big Spring in Van Buren--closed canopy woodlands, serious deer problem, so they keep burning off the leaves, nothing's coming up in the understory but a few stray plants, the deer come in to clip those down, the damaged system is also home to Japanese stiltgrass which deer don't like so the stiltgrass spreads even more rapidly than if they hadn't burned at all.

I saw a horrible example of the first situation down in White River country last week--hog wire fence everywhere, dog hair stand of 80 year old red oak/black oak (relicts of grazing), a fire that wasn't hot enough to kill trees (some piddly little January fire that started at 9 am when the humidity was 50% or more). The canopy closed up, and the understory looked like a talus slope in the St. Francois Mountains--devoid of life but for a Galium here and there. Burning off the leaves in a system damaged to such a degree doesn't do anything at all for biodiversity. Pick your sites wisely. I, for one, wouldn't even consider burning the woods I visited today until something was done about the deer problem.

I could go on and on, of course, but it's late. In short, use fire wisely, manage deer, and by all means keep the domestic livestock out of native ecosystems. I hope to never post such horrible photos like these browse line-overgrazed woods again.

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