Deer and the Understory

While the ever increasing populations of white-tailed deer throughout the southern Appalachians may bode well on the surface for hunters and those who make a living from the hunting industry, the long-term consequences may be pretty dire for the forest, for farmers, and even for hunters, according to a recent study by West Virginia University conservation biologist James McGraw and one of his students Mary Ann Furedi. The researchers studied deer impacts on American ginseng in West Virginia and discovered that if deer consumption of the forest understory persists at present levels, American ginseng will be extinct in 100 years. The study has gained attention in part because of ginseng’s status as a natural “cash crop,” which can fetch up to $500 per half kilogram in Asia.
But it’s not just ginseng. McGraw says all forest understory plants are at risk, including beloved flora like trillium. “What looks like a lush forest in May can look pretty bare by the end of the summer,” he says.
The problem isn’t unique to West Virginia either. Tim Lilley, director of public relations for the Quality Deer Management Association based in Athens, Georgia, says, “There are pockets of deer in every state in the white-tailed deer’s range that are suffering from over-browsing. Populations are higher than the carrying capacity of the land.” That means that some forests in areas with high deer concentrations are bare from the ground to about five feet up.
Eventually, this not only impacts forest health but farmers, too. In dry seasons, the forest may not provide enough forage for deer, leading them to raid farm crops. Overpopulation also ultimately leads to undernourishment, and Lilley says if better deer management is not put in place, many regions will start to see deer that are physically smaller and weaker.
A major part of the solution, Lilley says, is for states to consider whether or not their allowable deer harvests are providing for a healthy, balanced population of deer. McGraw says the only southern Appalachian state not suffering from depletion of forest understory is North Carolina, where hunting laws are more liberal.
“The most logical solution,” McGraw says, “is to bring hunting laws into line with what society wants to see the deer population at.” That means giving consideration not just to hunters, but to farmers, loggers, homeowners, anyone who can suffer negative impacts from over browsing. “What we need to grapple with is how we manage forest resources for everyone, not just for one small constituency.”
While most states now allow for the bagging of does, some hunters will pass up a doe in order to bag an antlered buck. “When you pass up a doe for a buck,” Lilley warns, “you’re adding significantly to the overpopulation problem. In four years, that doe may add 16 more deer to the landscape.” 16 deer that are more than likely small, undernourished, and reflective of an unhealthy forest and an unhealthy population of deer.
“It’s hard to address this issue,” McGraw admits, “because deer are pretty animals and fun to look at, but you can take the most benign animal and see that overpopulation is going to have negative impacts.”


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