Love, Obsession, and Consequences is now DEERLAND

It’s time for a major website makeover.  Love, Obsession, and Consequences is now DEERLAND.  

To many of you, my website’s previous title must have seemed puzzling.  My blog posts were about nature, the environment, the outdoors, and even hunting.  What did any of that have to do with “love, obsession, and consequences?”

I could tell from my search stats that I was often a dead end for lovelorn souls who desperately needed help with important personal decisions.  They arrived at my website after Googling questions like “Is it love or obsession?” and “How to get over a love obsession?”  To them, I apologize.  If you’re one of them, and if you happen to return and read this, I sincerely hope things are going better by now.

To the rest of you, I can explain everything.  It’s all about the deer.  You see, our complex relationship with deer truly does make for a twisted tale of love, obsession, and consequences.  First comes love and obsession, then consequences. 

That’s the story I’m working on now.  And today, on July 4, it’s official.  The working title of my next book is DEERLAND.

It will be published by Lyons Press, and is represented by Laurie Abkemeier.  She’s a great agent, one of the best in the business, and I feel tremendously fortunate to be working with her.  Without her patient coaching and guidance, I never could have made it this far.

It’s been a long road.  I’ve already drafted a couple chapters, and I’ve learned a lot about both the publishing business and the deer business.  In both cases, however, I’m still learning.  There’s a long road ahead, both figuratively and literally. 

As I research this story, I’ll be driving down freeways, back roads, old logging roads, and even suburban side streets.  I’ll also wear out a couple pair of hiking boots.  During the months to come, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences right here on my blog.  

Out in the woods, new stories are waiting to be told.  The deer are out there.  I’m going to tell their story—and ours, too.  

We do, after all, live in DEERLAND.  It’s easy to underestimate, especially if you live somewhere like LA or NYC, just how huge a role deer play in the environment, our culture, and even our economy.  To learn a bit more, please check out my new Home page as soon as you’re done here.  For now, let’s just say our complex relationship with deer reveals a great deal about America—and also about us Americans. 

Yes, this is a story about deer.  Most of all, however, it’s a story about us.

 

Silent Summer

In my last post, I introduced you to the deer of Dairymen’s and showed you an exclosure and a lollipop tree.  This time, I’ll tell you more—how bad things got, why they’re getting better, and what lessons this story holds for the rest of us.

In the photo above, you can see how much of Dairymen’s still looks today.  The forest understory is completely missing.  Even in June, the ground is brown.  Elsewhere, the scene is green and park-like, as in in the photo below.  These are all plants that resist or tolerate herbivory.  Everything else is gone.  Still, if you don’t know you’re looking at a scene of ecological devastation, it looks lovely. 

 

It is green.  But there’s no cover for small mammals or ground-nesting birds.  There’s no understory or mid-story where other songbirds would be nesting.  No grouse, no turkey, no finches, no warblers, no squirrels, no chipmunks, no nothing.  I was there on a still, humid day in June.  Nothing moved, and the forest was strangely silent.  I heard a robin off in the distance.  That was about it. 

(Admittedly, there were plenty of mosquitoes.  So it’s not exactly true that nothing was moving.  But that was it.)

This is what long-term overbrowsing looks like.  Here, deer had reached densities of over 100 per square mile and stayed at that level for decades.  This is unusual, but not unique.  The U.S. now has over 30 million deer, a hundred times more than were here just a century ago.  Their densities per square mile in America’s suburbs and parks have at times reached 100 in Chicago, 125 in Minneapolis, 182 in parts of New Jersey, 200 in Kansas City, and 400 in Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere, the effects of overabundant deer are less dramatic, but still significant.  Even if we spend a fair amount of time out in the woods, most of us have never seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer.  There’s no free lunch, and we trade more deer for less of everything else.  But when forced to choose between whitetails and all other wildlife, we almost always choose deer.

For 70 years, the Dairymen did.  But in the 90s, they stopped feeding them.  (In the photo above, you can still see the rusted, abandoned half of a 55-gallon drum that was once used to feed deer.)  A couple years ago, a pack of wolves moved in.  Things are looking up. 

Still, I’m not sure the wolves will be a popular solution in New Jersey or Kansas City.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

Deer on the Right, No Deer on the Left

Exclosure.

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

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