Saturday, July 01, 2017

Oh Deer, We Have a Serious Problem

Visiting the Cross Timbers country, where the Ozarks meet the prairies, is usually full of fun botanical discoveries--Perideridia americana, Malvaviscus hispidus, fun stuff like that, all surrounded by stunted post oak trees that average 400 years in age. This traditionally open landscape was the site of early ecosystem restoration projects spearheaded by a colleague, followed up by botanical surveys which indicated super rich woodlands, old growth post oaks, a grass-forb mix that appeared after thinning and prescribed fire were implemented. I love camping here with all of the Summer Tanagers, the Orchard Orioles, the Red-headed Woodpeckers that all thrive in this great environment.

But when I looked at the sampling data from 1987 and compared it to my own transect data along the same plots I collected in 2011, it was not even recognizable. First I thought I was in the wrong area, but I quickly realized that the entire site had been so severely degraded by deer overbrowsing that I asked for funding to install deer exclosures just to make sure I wasn't crazy. 16 ft. cattle panels, held together with baling wire, requiring climbing into them to sample the vegetation. So, I set up deer exclosures in 2011. I have sampled outside the deer exclosure and inside the deer exclosure using valid methodology established by the outfit I work for every year after a prescribed fire. The first few years I saw a few differences, more flowering stems inside the exclosure, more development of redbuds, white oaks and other ice cream plants for deer. I have collected data since 2011 and the data from 2017, collected last week, tells a story. A horrible story.

Imagine a landscape that was on par with the best remaining quality landscapes in the Niangua Basin, super rich with edge-of-range species, a lot of Camassia angusta, Brickellia, all kinds of cool plants that pollinating insects depend on, and then add an atrociously high number of white-tailed deer, some so tame and tick-infested that they come up to campers looking for food. Biodiversity disappears. I have witnessed this trend around St. Louis, and thankfully we have long-standing deer exclosures set up there, too, to measure deer impacts to vegetation. Unfortunately, someone in my shoes complaining about deer overpopulation and the degradation of biodiversity at the hands of deer doesn't stand a chance in the political realm. So I collect data. I write testimony that deer are impacting biodiversity.

When the woodlands of the Cross Timbers country were once a rich system with a suite of warm season grasses and perennial forbs- many of them restricted in their range- when that landscape is reduced to a monoculture of inland sea oats, genus Uniola, with no forb diversity, there's a problem. There's especially a problem when in those deer exclosures I set up in 2011 possess more species richness than anywhere else in the entire 800 acre tract, there's a problem. Indeed, deer cause a lot of collateral damage to crops, to automobiles, but no one is measuring the impacts of deer on biodiversity except a few select folks. When I saw a doe in my yard recently I recoiled and yelled and screamed and almost pulled out my Daisy slingshot. My partner laughed, saying that I trash talk deer so much that now they're coming after my yard. It's not funny. Deer are voracious feeders and will denude a landscape of quality vegetation, and when that happens, the whole trophic cascade effect occurs. Without the flowering plants you don't see pollinators. Without pollinators and other insects you don't see birds. Without birds you don't see seed dispersal, and so forth. Deer are the hooved locusts of biodiversity. Managing this scourge from the east, from the abysmal landscapes of Biltmore Estates, no plants but trees (not regenerating) and ferns, will be our future unless we take immediate action to control these out of control deer populations. Without the long standing predator-prey relationships, deer will continue to spiral out of control. And biodiversity loses every time.


D Tyler said...

Up until this year I loved being able to watch the deer on my property, and many a time I’ve seen them following me around in the woods (from a distance) as I photographed plants. I think they felt safe enough around me they’d even leave their fawns in my front yard while they wandered, and I often joked about how the does appeared to think I was their fawn sitter. This year, my feelings about the deer have changed since I’ve discovered just how destructive they actually are. In my efforts to identify the different plants growing on my property, I tend to mark things I want to observe with orange surveyor tape & I swear they’re watching me. I’ve seen them out there sniffing around whatever I may have just flagged as soon as I walk away, and a lot of plants I intend to watch will end up losing their tops to them. They also like to bed down in the glades…I have areas all over the place where the vegetation is flattened down and a lot of vegetation around their beds has been munched on. I had a bunch of Perideridia Americana pop up in my yard this year. I didn’t mark it, but I’m sure they must have noticed me paying close attention to it because they eventually ate the tops off of about half of the plants I found (I did manage to save some of it by putting poultry wrapped tomato cages over them). I now let them know they’re not welcome and after seeing how much damage they’re capable of, I believe I’ll be inviting some hunters for a visit this fall.

Allison Vaughn said...

Good for you for being proactive! Years of chronic deer overbrowsing and populations averaging 72 deer per square mile (the threshold is generally 25 per square mile...) and neighbors who enjoy feeding deer have caused detrimental degradation at this Hickory Co. site. I'm working on a solution and hope that in my lifetime the rest of the area looks like what's inside the deer exclosures.....Keep up the great work, Deb.

Ted C. MacRae said...

“Deer are the hooved locusts of biodiversity.”

A depressing situation to be sure, but your wordsmith skills still always bring a smile to my face.