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

A Review of Hank Shaw’s Hunt, Gather, Cook

If you’re following Hank Shaw or Holly Heyser’s blogs, you’ve already heard about Hank’s new book Hunt Gather Cook: Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.  It’s just out from Rodale Press, and it fills an important gap in the books already available on this topic.  You can find it at both blogs, elsewhere online, and at bookstores everywhere.

Even if you’re already a dedicated forager, angler, and hunter, you’ll learn a lot from this book.  If you’re a total beginner, you’ll really learn a lot.  Not many people have Hank’s knowledge of all three areas.  Even fewer have his knack for explaining things so simply and clearly.  Hank used to be a political writer, but he probably had a lot more fun writing this book.  He’s also a former chef, the kind of guy who’s written for both Food & Wine and Field & Stream.  Now how many people can say that?

This means Hank does more than just give you practical guidance about what to eat and how to get out there and pick it, catch it, or shoot it.  He shows you how to do it with style.  Then, once you get back home, you’ll be ready to make magic in the kitchen—maybe not quite like Hank does, but still…

If you’re like me, you tend to get in a rut now and then.  Maybe it’s time to get up some gumption and try a few new recipes beyond the usual fried fish, fried birds, and fried venison.  It’s time for some inspiration, the kind you’ll find in this book.

Hunt, Gather, Cook isn’t another one of those books about how to merely “survive” on what you find out in the wild.  It’s a book about how to have fun foraging, fishing, and hunting, and then come home and turn all those wild ingredients into a gourmet feast.  (And if all that work makes you thirsty, there’s also a chapter on how to make your own wines.  Real, drinkable wines that don’t taste like a science experiment gone wrong.)

Most important, this book will inspire huge numbers of people to get out of the house and get out on the water or out in the woods.  Getting more people to take that first step will be Hank’s most important accomplishment.  But if you’re already getting outdoors and bringing back an occasional dinner, then you’ll find inspiration in these pages, too.  And who knows?  Your dinners just might become a little tastier.

The book features great photos by Holly Heyser.  Even though they’re black and white, they still look way too delicious.  I’m writing this an hour before lunchtime, and another quick flip through the book has made me start salivating.  (For a sampling of luscious food photos in living color, check out Holly’s photography website.)

I’d write more, but I have to go find something to eat.  After that, I need to slip out for a bit and check on that one berry patch to see how things are coming.  And maybe I should get in some target practice and start doing a little scouting for deer season…

© 2011 Al Cambronne


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