Al Cambronne

The website of photographer and author Al Cambronne

Category: Ecology (page 2 of 12)

A Deer Letter From Long Island: Before and After in Southold

 2001 Photo From Southold, NY

Before: Fewer Deer in 2001

After my “Can’t See the Forest for the Deer” op-ed appeared in last week’s Wall Street Journal, I received several e-mails from readers.  One was from Southold, New York—the same Southold out on Long Island where a suburban deer cull is currently underway.  My correspondent lives right next door to the Tall Pines Conservation Area mentioned in last week’s op-ed and blog post, and she’s unfortunately experienced the same level of deer damage on her own property.  She was kind enough to send me these before-and-after photos of the woods beside her cottage.

She wrote: “In 2001 we could not walk thru our woods- so filled with undergrowth, wild berries and plants, butterflies snakes salamanders frogs small animals all over and ground nesting birds. It is DEAD now – you can see thru 1000 feet . Nothing alive below 6 ft from the ground. We had a few deer in 2001. HERDS of them now…  We’ve both had Lyme disease and we drive 15 miles an hour- as many deer run across the road every time we go out- including daytime… People do not want to visit us on the East end due to the tick diseases.”

Soon after buying her four acres, she created a stitched-together panorama showing the entire 900 feet of frontage along the road.  (The photo above is one of many she used to build her panorama.)  Back then deer numbers were apparently at a lower, more ecologically sustainable level.  As you can see from the photo below, that’s no longer true.  Lately she hasn’t felt excited about taking regular photos showing the missing understory and midstory in her woods.  She did, however, find this 2013 Google street view of her property.

By now Google must have collected thousands of street views that document the impacts of overabundant deer in America’s cities, parks, and suburbs. Some streets must have been photographed repeatedly over the years.  I find that whole idea fascinating, and I hope someone of a more empirical, analytical bent will find in it the germ of a tremendous research project.  But for the reader whose woods are pictured below, that’s little consolation.

2013 Google Streetview Showing Deer Damage in Southold, NY

After: A 2013 Google Street View of the Same Address

© 2014 Al Cambronne

 

Deer Impacts on Long Island and Beyond

Mashomack Exclosure, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski

An Exclosure at Long Island’s Mashomack Reserve:
Deer on the Left, No Deer on the Right

From the Suffolk Times: “It is reported that wild deer are doing considerable damage on the Island.  Those who have suffered most wrote to the State Conservation Commission, who came to investigate.”  And the same paper’s headline, just a month later: To Save the Deer: Tremendous Opposition Prevents Slaughter on Shelter Island.  Those stories aren’t from last week.  They’re from 1916.

Of course, since then some things have changed on Long Island. Very few deer remain in Deer Park.  If you’d like to live among deer, head a little farther east. Or, head west to one of America’s dozens of other Deer Parks. There’s also Deer Ridge, Deer Hill, Deer Hollow, Deer Valley, Deer Meadow, and Deer Creek. Want more? An online search for “deer real estate” yields over 69,000,000 hits. Why so many suburbs, housing developments, and streets named after deer?  Because it sells.

For all of us, whether we hunt them, watch them, or just plain love knowing they’re out there in the shadows beyond the edge of our lawn, deer have become an archetypal symbol of wilderness, wildness, and a return to nature—or at least an escape to a gentrified country lifestyle.  Love is blind; for hunters and watchers alike, the term “overabundant deer” can seem a puzzling oxymoron. But all too often we’re choosing Bambi over biodiversity and whitetails over all other wildlife. Inevitably, these changes echo and reverberate through entire ecosystems. Higher deer numbers, for example, invariably lead to lower songbird numbers and less songbird diversity.

Most of us, even if we spend a fair amount of time out in the woods, have never once seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer. It’s not just that we don’t know what we’re seeing. It’s that we don’t know what we’re not seeing, because deer have already eaten it. We even seem hard-wired to prefer a forest missing its understory. That craving may have once kept us safer from predators, and today it explains our lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, and parks. The words we most often use to describe a forest with too many deer can sound like praise: “open and park-like.”

Meanwhile, deer densities per square mile in America’s suburbs and parks have at times reached 207 in Kansas City, 241 in Philadelphia, 300 in parts of New Jersey, and 400 in Washington, D.C. Obviously, the numbers didn’t stay that high for years on end. They couldn’t. Something had to give, and standing back to watch and “let nature take its course” isn’t always our best option—or our most humane.

There are no easy answers, and not everyone will agree on the best solution.  In fact many people, even though they see themselves as environmentalists, deny there’s even a problem in the first place.  “So deer are eating a few plants in the back corner of someone’s lawn,” they argue.  “What’s the big deal?”  But exploding deer populations are more than just a minor nuisance.  If we care about the entire ecosystem, and if we truly care about the deer themselves, then at times we may need to make difficult choices.

To help spread the word, I wrote this op-ed that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.  (Update: You can also click here to download a PDF. My op-ed is on the bottom half of the page.) There, we didn’t have room for photos.  Here, I’ve included two from U. S. Forest Service botanist Thomas J. Rawinski. Up above, an exclosure that tells a simple story: deer on the left, no deer on the right.  Below, a shot from Long Island’s Ruth Oliva Preserve.  As you can see, deer have totally eliminated the forest understory. It’s food for thought.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Ruth Oliva Deer Impacts, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski

 

A Measurably Severe Winter

Frosty window at minus 31, copyright Al Cambronne

This old house doesn’t yet have modern, triple-pane windows.  Lately some mornings we’ve discovered frost on the inside.  I took this photo the other day at sunrise when it was -31° F.  It was about the same temperature this morning.

Here in northern Wisconsin, this is going to be a tough winter for deer—and also for other wildlife.  For a rough measure of just how tough, wildlife biologists use something called a Winter Severity Index (WSI).  States use different formulas, but Wisconsin uses a simple one:  Every day with more than 18” of snow on the ground gets a point.  So does every day when the temperature dips below 0° F.  A day when both happens?  That means two points.  Then at the end of the winter, add them all up.

Obviously, this formula doesn’t tell the whole story.  A crusty 17” of snow, for example, is more of a hardship for wildlife than a fluffy 19”.  And a calm night when the temperature briefly dips to 0° F isn’t as bad as a windy night when it falls to -25° F and stays there.  And I have to wonder if we should maybe add one more point when the daytime high doesn’t get above 0° F. (That would mean today gets three points.)

Still, the WSI is a good way to make rough comparisons from one winter to the next.  A winter with a final total of under 50 points is considered “mild,” 50 to 79 points is “moderate,” 80 to 99 is “severe,” and anything over 100 is “very severe.”

At 43 official stations here in northern Wisconsin, plus a few more downstate, these readings are recorded from December 1 through April 30.  At the unofficial station in my front yard, we’ve been racking up two points a day pretty much every day such December 1.  By my highly unofficial calculations, we’re already most of the way through “moderate.”  We should be hitting “severe” in another week or two, and it’s a long time until May 1.

In winter a deer’s primary metabolic strategy is to find thermal cover under thick conifers, stay bedded down, and expend as little energy as possible.  They live on stored fat, and they eat very little.  This year some individual deer may not live to see May Day.  But as a species, they’ve survived around four million cold winters.  Deer are survivors.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

 

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