Growing Deer Herd Damages Forestland

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(Host) The white-tailed deer occupies a place of honor in Vermont. A vigorous deer herd is often equated with a healthy landscape. But in parts of the state, especially in the southern Connecticut River Valley, experts are saying there are too many deer for the land to support. Foresters and landowners are concerned that heavy browsing of maple, ash and oak poses a threat to the future of the forest.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports on some attempts to solve the problem.

(Keese) Forester Charlie Richardson steps into a clearing in the woods in Dummerston. A few years ago he supervised a harvest of red oak and pine here. The cutting yielded the landowner some cash. It also opened up a sunny patch where a new generation of oaks and pines could take hold. It would have been a textbook case of good forestry except for the deer. Richardson stops at what should be a healthy stand of young red oak:

(Richardson) “They re almost shaped like a broom because they’ve been browsed so much.”

(Keese) Beyond the broom-shaped oaks is an even odder sight: a forest of five-foot tall plastic tubes tied to wooden stakes. The tubes are tree shelters. Richardson has been using them on this site to protect the trees until they reach a height where the deer won t eat them.

(Richardson) “But the one thing about tree shelters is that they take a lot of maintenance.”

(Keese) Richardson became a forester in the late 1950s. Back then, the brushy landscape of farms growing back to woods provided enough food to support a very large deer herd. The mature woods here now offer relatively little food.

When the deer aren’t browsing saplings, they can often be found munching in the gardens and yards springing up in increasing densities at the edges of these woods.

Richardson has seen the culture here change too, from one where hunting was accepted to one where much of the land is posted. The owner of these woods recently opened his land to limited hunting.

(Richardson) “In this case, on this property the landowner worked with wildlife all his life and wanted to give them a place where no harm would come…. but he found that he couldn’t do that completely.”

(Keese) Tim Morton is assistant county forester for Windham and Windsor Counties. He s concerned that the deer are devouring the next generation of the region’s most highly valued trees.

Standing in a Brattleboro forest preserve, Morton identifies a dozen species in the leafy canopy overhead:

(Morton) “And where you look in the understory, you see primarily two species, you see black birch, which the deer do not browse and you see the glossy buckthorn, which is a very aggressive exotic. And that theme is common throughout this forest. You have five, ten, twelve hardwood overstory species, a few softwood species. The future forest is being reduced to just a couple.”

(Keese) John Buck heads the deer team for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regulates deer numbers in the state. He’s visited the southern Vermont forest.

(Buck) “And there’s clearly an impact to the understory vegetation going on in Southeastern Vermont, and other parts of the state too. And deer are the principal culprits of that…. but we may have different points of view on how to arrive at a solution to that.”

(Keese) Buck worries that reversing that impact would mean reducing deer to numbers that would make hunters and wildlife watchers unhappy.

Antlerless deer permits – permits to hunt females with muzzle loaders or bows – are the main way the Department regulates the deer population.

After last fall’s hunting season, hunters complained that deer numbers were down following the harsh winter of 2001. In response, Fish and Wildlife is planning to eliminate or sharply cut antlerless permits in many regions.

But Buck says that in Brattleboro and a few other towns in the state’s southeast corner, the number of doe permits will actually be increased:

(Buck) “Our hope would be that the deer population would decrease over time and stay within line with what we feel the landscape can tolerate.”

(Keese) Some foresters say that’s not enough. But Morton says he’s glad the agency is at least listening.

Meanwhile, in Brattleboro, Morton has been trying a deer repellant made of bloodmeal on some oak seedlings. It seemed to keep the browsing down this winter. But today he arrives too late to save a flush of succulent spring growth:

(Morton) “There goes two deer right there look at em. See… there goes their white tails. They re feeding on my oaks.¿”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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