Deer on the Right, No Deer on the Left


It’s an odd word.  If you’ve never seen it in print, it just looks wrong.  Still, you’ve probably already guessed what it means.  If an enclosure keeps deer in, then an exclosure keeps them out.

Botanists use exclosures to measure, among other things, the effects of overabundant deer on the forest ecosystem.  Although the measuring and analysis can get complicated, the concept is simple: Exclude deer from a small area (or sometimes a large one covering several acres), and then watch to see what happens.  But be patient.  This could take a while. 

Eventually, if those overabundant deer are still present on the outside of the exclosure, the areas inside and outside the fence will begin to look very different.  The exclosure in the photo was built over ten years ago, and the area inside still isn’t quite back to normal.  Already, however, it looks very different from what’s on the outside.  That’s what a normal, healthy forest looks like—a forest, that is, with a normal, healthy number of deer.

This particular exclosure is on a 6,000-acre preserve in northeastern Wisconsin called, oddly enough, “Dairymen’s.”  The club was started back in the 20s by a small group of wealthy dairy magnates who wanted a private playground in the north woods.  (Yes, they were the “big cheeses” of the dairy industry.)  They also wanted Dairymen’s to be a wildlife refuge where no hunting was allowed. 

Deer had been almost totally eliminated from northern Wisconsin, and they pretty much had been eliminated from the southern part of the state.  So back then a wildlife refuge was a great idea.  By the 40s, however, Dairymen’s had a new problem.  It actually had too many deer.  Looking for answers, the club’s Conservation Committee invited a consultant up from the University of Madison, a professor named Aldo Leopold.  He told them they had four times as many deer as the land could support, and advised them to open Dairymen’s to hunting.

They thanked him for his advice, and then ignored it.  Instead, they decided to solve the problem by feeding the deer.  That way, they figured, the land could support more deer.  As you can imagine, this only made things worse.  Eventually deer densities exceeded 100 per square mile.  The deer ate everything they were fed, but they also ate every bit of vegetation they could reach.  The closer to the lodge, the worse the overbrowsing.

In the 90s, members of Dairymen’s began working with Dr. Tom Rooney, a botanist from Wright University in Ohio.  This sort of thing is his specialty; he’s one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of overabundant deer on the forest ecosystem. 

Here, he’s standing next to an eastern hemlock that’s just outside another exclosure.  This sad little sapling looks like it just hopped out of a Dr. Seuss story.  It’s one long, skinny trunk with a single tuft of needles at the top.  Deer have been hitting this tree hard for a long, long time.  It’s finally tall enough so it’s about to break free and begin growing normally.

After a clearcut, an aspen sapling could reach this height over a single summer.  But this tree is probably older than you are.  The technical term botanists use to describe a tree that’s been browsed in this pattern is “lollipop tree.”  (This describes its shape.  Unfortunately, lollipops don’t actually grow on it.)

Here, Dr. Rooney and I are about to break into a larger exclosure down the road.  He’d misplaced the key, and we didn’t want to crawl under the fence.  Normally it’s a bad idea to mix botanists, beer, and boltcutters.  But in this case, I made an exception.

Next time: more about the deer of Dairymen’s—how bad things got, why they’re getting better, and what lessons this story holds for the rest of us.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.

6 thoughts on “Deer on the Right, No Deer on the Left”

  1. Al, I love this post (and your photos are really pretty too). There’s a book on this topic that might interest you: “Going Wild,” by Jan Dizard. he’s a hunter and a professor at Amherst College, and he writes about the public battle over a preserve surrounding the reservoir that provides most of Boston’s water. This, too, was a no-hunting zone, and the deer were savaging it. The proposal to allow hunting there sparked a huge public battle.

    One thing I find really interesting about Dairymen’s is that it was founded by a bunch of rich people who wanted to keep hunters OUT. Usually in those days, the rich people wanted a swank place to hunt. Interesting history!

    1. Why, thank you! And thanks for the tip about “Going Wild.” I’ll have to check that out. I’m also curious to learn more about the “deer in the suburbs” angle to this story.

      I think part of the Dairymen’s situation is that by the 20s the area had already been overhunted. There just weren’t many deer left. Might have been a similar situation with grouse. Still, it was indeed a very progressive, forward-thinking choice for them to be making back then.

      The club’s members were thinking differently when it came to fishing, though. Although the property includes four or five lakes with no public access, the Dairymen managed to overfish them pretty drastically without any outside help. Today, though, all those lakes are catch-and-release only. Rumor has it, they’re full of large fish. And to prevent aquatic invasive species from coming in, the Dairymen have put some boats on those lakes, and no others are allowed in–not even those belonging to members, and not even canoes or kayaks. So they have a pretty strong conservation ethic.

      I guess if some of them hunt, they must go outside the grounds and hunt somewhere else. There’s a lot of public land in that area, so maybe they even hunt out there with us riff-raff.

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