This Bud’s Not For You

This bud’s not for you.  Not if you’re a deer, it isn’t.

And that’s the explanation behind an apparent mystery.  Who knew that red pines had such lovely white flowers, and that they’d be blooming before the snow has even melted?

But no.  These blossoms are actually little scraps of paper that have been carefully stapled to thousands upon thousands of seedlings.  It was the only way to prevent their tender new growth from being nipped off by hungry deer.

If you think it must be a lot of work to do that, you’re right.  It has to be done in a way that doesn’t harm the tree, and yet is still tight enough so deer can’t easily nuzzle it off.  It’s done with paper that breathes, but is still quite durable.  These trees received their bud caps three or four years ago, and the caps are still there.  Here’s a close-up:


Most of these trees have grown to the point where they’re relatively safe from deer.  Plus, local deer populations here in northwest Wisconsin are now down significantly.  Deer hunters are mad as hell about that.  They blame wolves, the DNR, bears, and each other—in roughly that order.  (But that’s a whole other story.)

When these trees were planted, however, deer were so plentiful that tender new seedlings without bud caps didn’t stand a chance.  After repeated replantings, it was time for the last-ditch bud cap strategy.  Remarkably, a wildlife biologist told me that during this same period he received a phone call from an angry citizen who hunts less than a mile from here.  The hunter said there were no deer left for miles around, and it was his worst year of hunting ever. 

Meanwhile, frustrated foresters were telling a different story.  Bud caps are a very labor-intensive solution, but there was no other option.  The labor was provided by migrant workers from Mexico, the same crews that come every spring to plant these seedlings. 

Every spring, one of these crews stay at a resort down the road from us.  The contractor gets a special rate, and the resort gets extra business during the weeks before fishing season.  In anticipation, our local IGA stocks extra tortillas, beans, hot sauce, and similar items that have been moving more slowly all winter.  These guys work hard, dark to dark, six days a week.  They’re hungry when they get back.

Occasionally, these crews are here at other times of year.  They arrive in the night, quietly and unannounced.  Their secret mission: To protect vulnerable pine seedlings by battling deer with office supplies.  Instead of being issued a shovel, each worker is given small scraps of paper and a loaded stapler.  It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

The Last Happy Hour: Instant Winter Severity

Winter Severity Index

During the past 24 hours, we’ve been getting walloped by our first major snowstorm of the season.  We’ve received at least a foot of new snow on top of what we already had.

Meanwhile, today is the last day of Wisconsin’s gun deer season.  Bow season began back in September, and continues until January 9.  In October, gun hunters in some deer management units had an early four-day antlerless season.  In November, we had the regular nine-day gun season, followed by a ten-day muzzleloader season that just ended Wednesday.  Thursday morning, persistent hunters could head back out with their breechloaders for a four-day late antlerless season that will end later this afternoon.

It’s not easy being a deer.  True, all this new snow will keep most hunters out of the woods today.  But sometime early this morning, we crossed a threshold.  The weather officially became severe—doubly severe.  Last night the temperature was around ten below, and we now have over 18” of snow on the ground.  If this keeps up, we’ll have a long, severe winter. 

Wildlife biologists measure such things with a tool called the Winter Severity Index (WSI); according to the WI DNR, it’s calculated by “…adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground to the number of days when minimum temperatures were 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below between December 1 and April 30.  If you think of it as adding up points, a day when both conditions occurred would get two points.  At the end of the winter all the points are added up, resulting in the WSI number for the whole winter. A winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50 to 79 is moderate, 80 to 99 is severe and over 100 is very severe.”

The WSI isn’t perfect; 17” of snow topped by an icy crust doesn’t earn that day a second point–no matter how unpleasant conditions might be for cold, hungry deer.  Similarly, there’s a big difference between one below and forty below.  Still, the WSI at least allows rough comparisons from one winter to the next.

So far this month, it’s been below zero about every other night.  Five points right there.  Just checked the forecast; more subzero nights on the way.  Looks like we’ll be racking up two points a day until later in the week.  By then, we could be getting more snow. 


The Forest Around Us

Some blogs have titles, some don’t.  Later, I may give this one a title that reflects specific projects I’m working on.  Or not.  For now, at least, this will just be…  My blog.

But if I did have to pick a title now, maybe I’d choose The Forest Around Us.  Kind of like Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, only with seas of trees.  And I could write of looking into the forest and seeing more than the trees.

Or, if I weren’t trying to be so rational and scientific, I could make up stories about the forest I see outside my window right now.  If the forest around us could talk…  It would indeed tell quite a story.  But the story wouldn’t be as long as you might think.  Those tallest white pines on the island across the bay?  The one with the eagle nest, and the others clustered right next to it?  I’m pretty sure they’re no more than about 150 years old.  Here’s how I know.

At most, they would have been mere saplings during those few short years when all of northern Wisconsin was logged off and turned into one giant clearcut.  If they even existed yet, they were too small to bother cutting. 

If they’d been even a decade or two older, they’d be gone.  No question about it.  Growing right at the edge of the river that would carry them to downstream sawmills, trees like these would have been felled first.  So that pretty much narrows it down.

Who knows?  When the loggers arrived, maybe those pines were already about the size of your average Christmas tree. Or maybe they were still just a twinkle in some pinecone’s eye. 

Still, they had to start somewhere.  And so does this blog.