Lately I’ve been learning a lot from botanists and ecologists about the effects of overabundant deer on the forest ecosystem. For a different perspective, I’ve also talked with foresters. It’s their job to grow trees for harvest, and sometimes it’s a fine line between forestry and agriculture. But since deer enjoy browsing on seedlings and saplings, foresters and botanists have a lot in common when it comes to deer.
Last summer I spent a day out in the field with county forester Craig Golembiewski so he could show me what he’s up against. The photo above is from just one of our many stops that day. This tree is trying to tell us something about the recreational feeding of deer.
Although it’s on county land, several lake homes are just over the hill. Every winter a few of these homeowners feed the deer. Craig explained that their feeding, probably in amounts well over Wisconsin’s two-gallon legal limit, keeps the deer concentrated in this small area all winter long. They bed down somewhere near here, head over to the feeders every night, and then return to browse on whatever they find. “Basically,” he told me, “they come for the corn and stay for the salad.” Any tender green pine seedlings poking through the snow are in big trouble. So is any tender new growth on medium-sized trees.
Craig told me the same thing happens with baiting out on public land. Even though it only continues for a few weeks, or at most a couple months, it’s at just the wrong time of year. In late fall and early winter, tender pine seedlings are the only tasty green browse remaining. Deer are concentrated by the bait, and they get tired of the corn after a while. It’s kind of like us polishing off a bag of Doritos and still craving a little salad.
It was last summer when I went out on my tour with Craig. Later, as deer season was approaching, I had a great idea. Clearly, this would be a perfect hunting spot. I was certain this was a great idea. It should have worked, but it didn’t. Although I’m admittedly not an expert hunter, every morning I saw many fresh deer tracks revealing one more reason why my brilliant plan wasn’t working.
Deer naturally get nervous after all the shooting starts on opening morning, and as hunting pressure increases they tend to become nocturnal. But since these deer had been visiting backyard feeders every night, they were already well on their way. They’d eat corn at night, and then in the daytime bed down nearby in thick brush where it was hard to sneak up on them. You might call them commuter deer. Or maybe Dracula deer. Anyway… By the time I was out hunting every morning, I could tell from the tracks that these deer had just left. They were already home in their beds.
The photo below is one I took a few days ago. It shows a spot about forty miles from where I took the other one. Notice the small, spindly saplings with no branches for the first four or five feet. Umbrella trees. Every winter they’ve been hit hard by hungry deer.
This is a beautiful spot with lots of tall, towering pines. But although there’s plenty of light filtering through them, there’s no understory like you’d see under similar pines only a mile away. Nor are there many small pines getting ready to replace the tall ones. Only these umbrella trees, which have probably taken several decades to reach this height.
The reason? This location is a very small deer refuge. It’s on private land, out on a high, rocky peninsula in a neighborhood with several large lake homes. Although snow had fallen the night before, fresh deer tracks were everywhere. More than one set of tracks seemed to be headed to and from the back yard of a nearby home. Commuters.
© 2012 Al Cambronne