Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

A beautiful animal that also happens to arguably be the greatest threat to forests in the eastern United States. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

A beautiful animal that also happens to arguably be the greatest threat to forests in the eastern United States. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

By Allen Pursell, Southern Indiana Program Director, The Nature Conservancy in Indiana; Troy Weldy, Director of Ecological Management, The Nature Conservancy in New York; Mark White, Forest Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota and the Dakotas

 “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” —Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

 

In August, 2012 The Bloomberg View published a staff editorial entitled Deer Infestation Calls for Radical Free-Market Solution. The Wall Street Journal then ran a story in November 2012 entitled America Gone Wild, noting the impact of overabundant deer. If business news organizations can talk freely about deer, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) needs to speak openly as well. Aldo Leopold long ago warned us of the problems of a growing deer herd. Have we waited too long to heed his advice, or is there still time to reverse the damage done?

No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer. There are no hard numbers, but in many states deer populations continue to rise well beyond historical norms. In many areas of the country deer have changed the composition and structure of forests by preferentially feeding on select plant species.

In northern Minnesota, TNC staff demonstrated that decades of overbrowsing led to recruitment failure for many tree species, a shift in subcanopy and canopy dominance towards non-preferred white spruce, and significantly lower forest productivity (White 2012). In New York, TNC scientists report that one-third of New York’s forests are currently compromised as a result of excessive herbivory (see New York Forest Regeneration Study).

Findings similar to these have been documented across the country. U.S. Forest Service researchers have noted that even if areas with high deer densities were managed to reduce the impact of deer, there may be long-lasting legacy effects (Royo 2010). Webster (2005) found severe and lasting impacts at Smoky Mountain National Park to be so complete that some plants such as trilliums were unlikely to recolonize local areas on their own. Deer are also well-documented vectors for the dispersal of non-native exotic plants (Knight et al. 2009, Baiser et al. 2008, Williams and Ward 2006).

Indirect effects on wildlife have been reported as well, such as widespread declines of North American songbird populations (Chollet 2012). One study found forest songbirds that preferred nesting in the shrub and intermediate canopy layer declined in abundance and species richness as deer density increased (deCalesta 1994).

White-tailed deer likely impact every landscape east of the Mississippi River. The damage has been insidious — both slow moving and cumulative. Unfortunately, the harm is often overlooked, or worse, accepted as somehow “natural.”

In our opinion, no other threat to forested habitats is greater at this point in time — not lack of fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change. Only invasive exotic insects and disease have been comparable in magnitude. We can argue about which threat is more significant than another, but no one who walks the eastern forests today can deny the impact of deer to forest condition.

It is clearly true that fire suppression has had a widespread impact on successional trajectory and tree species composition. A natural fire return interval would be a great benefit to many eastern forests. Yet even where fire is present, excessive deer herbivory has been shown to depress tree species diversity or at least minimize the benefits of fire. In the words of a recent study on the interactions of fire, canopy gaps, and deer browsing: “… restoring disturbances without controlling browsing may be counterproductive.” (Nuttle, 2013)

While we acknowledge that climate change is a long-term stressor that will lead to significant changes in eastern forest ecosystems, high deer populations have had a much greater negative impact currently and over the last several decades. At present there is little evidence of direct climate change impacts on eastern forests (Beckage et al. 2008, Woodall et al. 2009, Zhu et al. 2012, Rustad et al. 2012). With climate envelope and other modeling systems, we have a general understanding about likely range shifts and compositional changes in eastern forests over the next 50-100 years. However, due to the many interacting factors such as atmospheric deposition (nitrogen, ozone), insect pests and pathogens, invasive plants, CO2 enrichment, longer growing seasons, and white-tailed deer populations, there is a high degree of uncertainty about the future condition and function of eastern forests in a changing climate (Frelich and Reich 2009, Rustad et al. 2013).

No such uncertainty exists regarding the negative impacts of high deer populations on eastern forests; the body of evidence is unequivocal. In this article, we present only a small fraction of the literature on deer impacts. Reducing the impact of deer herbivory is currently a key forest restoration strategy (White 2012, Nuttle et al. 2013) and likely will become more important in order to help maintain resilient, functioning forests in a warming climate (Galatowitsch et al.2009).

Engaging society to address the problem will be difficult, probably similar to our experience with wild pig eradication in California and Hawaii, but on a wider scale. Views on deer management are deeply entrenched, both among those who hunt and those who don’t. People have strong opinions when it comes to deer.

A Call to Action

The forest understory is nearly absent except for Japanese stiltgrass. Note the deer appears to be especially thin. Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania.  Photo: Ron Rathfon.

The forest understory is nearly absent except for Japanese stiltgrass. Note the deer appears to be especially thin. Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania. Photo: Ron Rathfon.

Change is possible but it won’t be easy or quick.

Deer management cannot be regulated at the federal level. As early as 1896 the Supreme Court ruled that states have “ownership” of their wildlife. As a result, each state has its own intricate rules. State regulations need not be standardized, but efforts at reform must be made state-by-state. This process will be slow as rules are generally promulgated by processes that ensure adequate evaluation by respective wildlife authorities and to allow for public review.

Nevertheless, some states are beginning to do the difficult work of changing policies to stabilize or reduce the number of deer. For example, Indiana recently enacted the first modern firearms season targeting female deer in the state’s history.

It will be difficult to overcome traditional hunter concepts of proper deer management as it is counter-intuitive to most hunters that fewer game animals are desirable. Decades of effort, patience, and expense were invested to enhance populations to the point where hunting success is now commonplace. To suggest that populations be reduced and therefore increase the effort needed to harvest a deer understandably generates resistance. Success will take a carefully crafted and sustained public relations effort.

Like almost all conservation problems, deer management is a societal issue. If the deer population is to be reduced, it must be reduced slowly. Rules that lower the population drastically will almost certainly spur a backlash from hunters who can appeal to their respective legislatures to overturn regulations they regard as harsh. In an effort to lower the population of deer in Wisconsin the DNR liberalized hunting dramatically.

The result was a hunter revolt. Gov. Scott Walker campaigned on a pledge to fix deer management. Once elected, he made good on that promise by appointing a deer trustee to evaluate his state’s DNR. The trustee’s final report noted that by failing to adequately communicate with hunters and involve them in determining solutions the DNR had lost credibility (Kroll 2012). A similar push back may be occurring in Pennsylvania.

In some sense one of the greatest losses of all is that deer are no longer viewed as the majestic and even mystical animals of the forest that they were only a few decades ago. To quote Bloomberg: “… it’s hard to think of a more insidious threat to forests, farms and wildlife, not to mention human health and safety, than deer.”

How different that is from the time of John Muir, who wrote, “Standing, lying down, walking, feeding, running even for its life, it [deer] is always invincibly graceful, and adds beauty and animation to every landscape — a charming animal and a great credit to nature.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

References

Allan B.F., L.S. Goessling, G.A. Storch, and R.E. Thach. 2010. Blood meal analysis to identify reservoir hosts for Amblyomma americanum ticks. Emerging Infectious Disease 16(3):433-440.

Baiser, B.J., L. Lockwood, D. La Puma, and M.F.J. Aronson. 2008. A perfect storm: two ecosystem engineers interact to degrade deciduous forests of New Jersey. Biological Invasions 10: 785-795.(Beckage, Osborne et al. 2008)

Beckage, B., B. Osborne, et al. 2008. A rapid upward shift of a forest ecotone during 40 years of warming in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105: 4197-4202.

Beckage, B., B. Osborne, D.G. Gavin, C. Pucko, T. Siccama and T. Perkins 2008). “A rapid upward shift of a forest ecotone during 40 years of warming in the Green Mountains of Vermont.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105(11): 4197-4202.

Bloomberg View. (2012, August 8). Deer infestation calls for Radical Free-Market Solution. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved January 18, 2013 from http://www.bloomberg.com/.

Chollet, S. and J. Martin. 2012. Declining woodland birds in North America: should we blame Bambi? Diversity and Distributions doi: 10.1111/ddi.12003.

Conover, M.R. 1998. Perceptions of American agricultural producers about wildlife on their farms and ranches. Wildlife Society Bulletin 26(3):597-604.

deCalesta, D.S. 1994. Effect of white-tailed deer on songbirds within managed forests in Pennsylvania. Journal of Wildlife Management 58(4): 711-718.

Fagerstone, K.A. and W. H. Clay. 1997. Overview of USDA Animal Damage Control Efforts to Manage Overabundant Deer. Wildlife Society Bulletin 25(2): 413-417.

Frelich, L.E. and P.B. Reich. 2010. Will environmental changes reinforce the impact of global warming on the prairie–forest border of central North America? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8: 371-378.

Galatowitsch, S., L. Frelich. 2009. Regional climate change adaptation strategies for biodiversity conservation in a midcontinental region of North America. Biological Conservation 142: 2012-2022.

Knight, T.M., J.L. Dunn, L.A. Smith, J. Davis, and S. Kalisz. 2009. Deer facilitate invasive plant success in Pennsylvania forest understory. Natural Areas Journal 29(2): 110-116.

Kroll, J.C., D.C. Guynn, Jr, and G.L. Alt. 2012. Final Report and Recommendations by Wisconsin White-tailed Deer Trustee and Review Committee. 2012. Madison, Wisconsin. 136 pp.

Nuttle, T., A.A. Royo, M.B. Adams, and W.P. Carson. 2013. Historic disturbance regimes promote tree diversity only under low browsing regimes in eastern deciduous forest. Ecological Monographs 83(1): 3-17.

Royo, A.A., S.L. Stout, D.S. deCalesta, T.G. Pierson. 2010. Restoring forest herb communities through landscape-level deer herd reductions: Is recovery limited by legacy effects? Biological Conservation 143: 2425-2434.

Rustad, L., J. Campbell, J. Dukes, T. Huntington, K. Fallon Lambert, J. Mohan, N. Rodenhouse. 2012. Changing Climate, Changing Forests: The Impacts of Climate Change on Forests of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada. USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station General Technical Report NRS-99: 56pp.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. (2012, October 23). It’s West Virginia Again. Mountain State Leads State Farm’s List of States Where Deer-Vehicle Confrontations Are Most Likely. Statefarm.com. Retrieved January 18, 2013 from http://www.statefarm.com/.

Wall Street Journal. (2012, November 2). America Gone Wild. online.wsj.online.com. Retrieved January 18, 2013 from http://online.wsj.com/.

Webster, C.R., M.A. Jenkins, J.H. Rock. 2005. Long-term response of spring flora to chronic herbivory and deer exclusion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA. Biological Conservation 125: 297–307.

White, M.A. 2012. Long-term effects of deer browsing: Composition, structure, and productivity in a northeastern Minnesota old-growth forest. Forest Ecology and Management 269:222-228.

Williams, S.C. and J.S. Ward. 2006. Exotic seed dispersal by white-tailed deer in southern Connecticut. Natural Areas Journal 26(4): 383-390.

Woodall, C.W., C.M. Oswalt, J.A. Westfall, C.H. Perry, and A.O. Finley.  2009. An indicator of tree migration in the eastern United States. Forest Ecology and Management 257: 1434-1444.

Zhu, K., C.W. Woodall and J.S. Clark. 2012. Failure to migrate: lack of tree range expansion in response to climate change. Global Change Biology 18: 1042-1052.

Allen Pursell has been with The Nature Conservancy in Indiana for 19 years and holds a BS and MS in Forestry from Purdue University. Contrary to what the article may lead you to believe he likes deer very much. Mark White is the Forest Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Mark’s work focuses on ecological forestry, habitat conservation, and climate change adaptation. Troy Weldy is Director of Ecological Management for The Nature Conservancy in New York.



Comments: Too Many Deer: A Bigger Threat to Eastern Forests than Climate Change?

  •  Comment from Al Cambronne

    A great story, and very well researched. I wrote about these issues in my book DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness, and I’d have to agree on both the nature of the problem and the challenges we’ll face as we attempt to solve it.

    As long as hunters and wildlife watcher alike continue demanding to see more deer every time they step out into the woods, and as long as helpful politicians are eager to give them what they want, balance will remain elusive. It’s sad that we should be speaking of deer “infestations,” but in some places that’s what it’s come to.

    •  Comment from Allen Pursell

      Thanks for your remarks, Al. Those who are reading Cool Green Science really should get themselves a copy of DEERLAND for a more compelling summary of the problem. We just handed out a dozen copies of it to a deer working group we have in Indiana.

      I concur that a solution will be hard to reach, because all societal problems are difficult to address and that’s clearly what we have on our hands. Nevertheless, we’re ethically obligated to face such a serious threat to forests. I’m optimistic we can and will make progress even though it may be slow and scattered at first.

    •  Comment from whocares

      what deers theres too many hunters killing every thing that breaths there is no deer theres too many people. you lier

  • Thanks for the thoughtful article.

    One of the questions in my mind is whether — even with a careful, strategic, educational approach — a sufficient proportion of hunters can be convinced that lower deer populations are in their long-term, enlightened self-interest.

    As an ecologically concerned hunter, I’d like to think that’s possible. But I’m not at all certain.

  •  Comment from Robb Cadwell

    Tovar it most certainly is possible to control ungulate populations via hunters by appealing to their enlightened self interest. Such population management is commonplace and long established in the intermountain west.

    Using a controlled number of permits for female elk and deer our division of wildlife manages game not for the most the habitat will hold, but rather for what is a healthy population for the ecosystem and the social carrying capacity of agricultural interests.

    We have divided our state into hundreds of Game Management Units and we have controlled hunts choosing not only the number of each species to be taken but the age and sex of the species. We also control the number of days a species may be hunted adding special hunts when herds are above objective.

    Game management is science, but it’s not rocket science.

  •  Comment from Jenny Nguyen

    We had that problem in Nebraska, but I guess nature sometimes has a way of correcting itself. EHD hit Nebraska pretty hard last year. This year, Game and Parks isn’t getting anywhere near the number of deer complaints it used to get. Driving around, I hardly see any deer. We also had to get rid of our bonus tags for deer permits. Hunters are sitting tight, waiting for the deer population to rise again, which it will. Some does have been seen with twins.

  • Robb: I agree that it is technically possible. What I wonder about is whether it is culturally feasible among whitetail hunters in the East. Research (by Decker at Cornell, for instance) has shown that many deer hunters in this region use wildlife management as a justification for hunting, but aren’t all that concerned or knowledgeable about the need to actually serve that purpose. With education and persuasion, perhaps that can change.

    Where I live in Vermont, the winters are harsh, the deer population is relatively sparse, and forest regeneration and undergrowth are fairly good, with plenty of wildflowers and the like. Over in the Champlain Valley, over in New York State (especially around Tompkins County, where Cornell happens to be), and down in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states, however…

  •  Comment from Jim Sterba

    Thanks for mentioning my Wall Street Journal article, “America Gone Wild.” FYI, that piece was an edited excerpt from my book, “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.” Since it came out in November, I’ve been getting requests from communities and groups all over the country to come and talk. Seems like everyplace has a critter problem — mainly white-tailed deer in the East — or else they have an opinion about what to do, or what NOT to do, about it. And the community battles over deer occur most frequently in areas where whitetails are increasingly concentrated: in the suburban, exurban, and rural sprawl areas where a majority of Americans now live.

  •  Comment from Jim Sterba

    Thanks for mentioning my Wall Street Journal article, “America Gone Wild.” FYI, that piece was an edited excerpt from my book, “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.” Since it came out in November, I’ve been getting requests from communities and groups all over the country to come and talk. Seems like everyplace has a critter problem — mainly white-tailed deer in the East — or else they have an opinion about what to do, or what NOT to do, about it. And the community battles over deer occur most frequently in areas where whitetails are increasingly concentrated: in the suburban, exurban, and rural sprawl areas where a majority of Americans now live.

  •  Comment from luther Garcia

    Indiana has some serious Deer overpopulation issues. As a grouse hunter, I would have very limited success even finding birds, yet we would stumble across deer so plentiful that there is a browse line in most forested areas.
    In the 1920′s the white tailed deer was extinct in the wild in Indiana, and new populations had to be imported from Virginia. Now the animals are thick as fleas, but the hunting regulations have not kept pace. The firearm season is quite short, the weapons are limited, and the take limits have not changed. All this, and a declining percentage of the population has the time, energy, or desire to hunt makes for a burgeoning deer population.
    With the advent of the Chronic Wasting Disease, and the fear of cross species infection from hunting, there is additional pressure against hunting. Despite the need for massive culling, too many people know that high deer populations are destroying orchids, mushrooms, ground nesting birds, and every other animal which competes with the Deer.

  •  Comment from Lorena

    I laughed at the part
    The damage has been insidious — both slow moving and cumulative. Unfortunately, the harm is often overlooked, or worse, accepted as somehow “natural.”
    (A species thriving is 100% natural..)
    I think people get to be too much on this. Deer were here before we colonized in the America’s and before we became double in population, I think the forest was just fine then…

    It think Bloomburg should concentrate more on fixing the problems we create for the forest rather than deer. lol this blog was ridiculous, whats next. “There are too many mice eating crickets!”

    •  Comment from Chrris

      Lorena writes: “Deer were here before we colonized in the America’s and before we became double in population, I think the forest was just fine then’

      Back then there were wolves, mountain lions and the hunter gatherer Native American tribes which counterbalanced this prolific & adaptive species. By removing predators or refusing to fill their vital role, we subvert the very notion of a balanced ecology.

  •  Comment from miranda

    lol you should do an article about how trees produce too many leaves, and are affecting oxygen levels. and That if we all pulled some leaves off trees we could evade absolute destruction of the atmosphere.

    Lmao worst part is some people here probably thought I was serious and thought that idea was great….

    Leave nature alone, she’s a big girl and has taken care of herself for millions of years.
    if you’re going control any population you should consider the human being species, they’re the ones really killing the forest.

    compared to us deers are innocent, Bloomberg needs

    •  Comment from Andrew

      yes deer were here before us but if you actually knew a little environmental science you would not say that. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity threshold that can not be crossed and if so then disease take hold and if you want something really bad look up some of the sicknesses that deer can contract such as CWD or for people who know nothing about the topic chronic wasting disorder which affect the nervous system of the deer and they die and agonizing death. So next time talk about some thing you know a little about before you make comments like this. And PS its DEER not DEERS.

  •  Comment from Greg Williams

    I don’t dispute the idea that deer populations are problematic. At the same time, as a vertebrate native to the easter United States, I believe my species probably has “a more direct effect on habitat integrity” than white-tailed deer. Let’s remember our role in all this and do what we can to limit and repair our effects on habitat integrity.

  •  Comment from Walt C

    I live in Connecticut and I hunt deer – So I know plenty about the negative impacts of too many deer. However, finding people to grant permission to hunt is a huge problem for all of us here, even though there are deer everywhere.

    This IS a social issue before anything else. As the article says, even getting people to understand the problem is a huge challenge.

    The scientific community is in total agreement (with the exception of those studies sponsored by anti-hunting organizations) But how do you get people to take their blinders off ???

  •  Comment from Walt C

    To the previous response from Greg Williams.
    “I believe my species probably has “a more direct effect on habitat integrity” than white-tailed deer.”

    Think about that – because humans have created perfect habitat for deer – Not destroyed it.

    We planted crops across the country. We cleared the woods (that naturally can not supply enough food for this many deer) We removed their predators. What MORE could deer have asked for?

    And some people suggest we let nature take it course? Too late for that.

    The only Responsible and Ethical thing to do is to control the negative impacts humans have had on nature. Protect the species that have been reduced – and control the species that are in excess.

  •  Comment from Stewart

    One important thing missing is that whitetail deer are legitimate meat animals and have been hunted with the bow over twenty thousand years. White tail deer are a native species (not an invasive) and live a far better healthier life then factory farmed animals with none of the associated pollution.
    Any farmer that could provide such free range habit, natural food and have the hunter’s acknowledgment and respect for the taking of each animal’s life would be given sainthood by many animal right groups!
    Urban Bow hunting programs that harvest over abundant wild, free running deer are, as nature intended a win – win sustainable situation that has been proved to work in reducing deer herd densities.
    There are a number of towns in SW CT whose bow hunting programs have over time steadily reduced their deer populations closer to the number of deer per square mile that all wild life biologists agree on.

  •  Comment from Chuck Lubelczyk

    The issue of Lyme disease should not be minimzed in the deer debate. Depsite the recent attempts to link the problem solely to other species, there is a long body of work (stretching back to the 1980′s) that has conclusively proven the need of the black-legged tick to feed (and reproduce as a consquence)on white tailed deer. While deer do not contribute to the bacterium’s propogation, they certainly do the tick. And the tick transmits the disease to people and companion animals.

  •  Comment from Remus III

    The type that writes these articles are environmental extremists and in my view, completely nuts. That was the dumbest article of lies and propaganda that I have ever read, and its precious minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Unforunately some states, like Pa, has these types in charge of their game management agencies. That’s bullsquat and needs to be rectified. We need hunter friendlies in top staff positions whether the greenies like it or not. That is the only way proper management will occur and proper numbers of deer will be the case. And by proper that means more in some areas of Pa than currently is the case. The greenies would whine, but as far as Im concerned they can all go to some other liberal state and push their agenda there.

  •  Comment from Deer Fencing

    Thanks for sharing this article. I’m doing some research for my client http://www.DeerBusters.com. We are trying to put together a large resource for alternatives for “Deer Control” and I found your article useful. Cheers, Ben

  •  Comment from Opveltri

    Wayne nj population of fifty thousand . Paterson pop. Over 150000. I have less than acre of land in Wayne, with several acres behind me. I chase every day and other days several time with air blast horn and broom . I have counted from 6 to 20 deer of the property. I have been told by the police I am not permitted to even through astone at them.
    Nj laws stink
    The deer double every three years.,other than leaving the state what can I do. I have lived in Wayne for forty one years. The last 5 to 6 years has been a night mare.
    I

  •  Comment from james

    what do deer eat

    •  Comment from Lisa Feldkamp

      Thank you for your interest. SUNY’s College of environmental science has information on white-tailed deer food and feeding behavior here: http://www.esf.edu/aec/adks/mammals/wtd.htm

  •  Comment from James Pagnotta - Avid Hunter/ Outdoorsman 40 years

    I do agree with all of the experts who say deer are in abundance , as a hunter I only harvest enough deer for my family and friends who enjoy eating venison. What many non hunter don’t realize is how difficult it is to actually harvest a deer. I spend many hours in the woods prior to the hunting season preparing for a safe and successful hunting season. What many people don’t know is how smart and elusive these animals can be, especially when they realize hunting pressure is on. I basically Bow Hunt because you have to rely on a maximum of stealth to harvest a deer. I personally feel the venison better tasting when taken with a bow when it’s a clean kill. I do know one thing is evident there are way too many deer and far too little people who are interested in trying or learning the true enjoyment of being in the outdoors, it’s never been about just killing this majestic and beautiful animal; however, I realize that it’s an absolute must for the healthy survival of this animal and many things in nature that even non hunters enjoy. In closing I would to say that most ethical hunters truly feel that they are trying to do their part to help a growing problem.

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