The NPWG group discussions are a great benefit, at least to me. Accordingly, this month, I thought, we could address another critical but controversial ecological issue: white-tailed deer.
Don’t we all wish that there was a single, simple cure for white-tailed deer overpopulation? Even inner-city gardeners are now experiencing the frustration of deer-destroyed gardens. Overpopulation is also causing extensive damage in the wilds – in fact, driving deer out of the gardens may be further damaging the wilds.
How do we responsibly address the issue, particularly as we are the people who devote a significant part of our lives to saving native plants and the wildlife that depend on them? What do we do when wildlife is the threat?
To help get a group discussion started, I’m sharing excerpts from a Facebook discussion on the use of “deer-resistant” plants between David Emerson, Stewardship Director of the Westchester Land Trust, and myself. I wish to thank Dave for giving permission to reproduce some of his thoughts here.
I wrote something like: “I am sick of being asked “is it deer-resistant?” to which the only honest answer is, I think: “how hungry is the deer and what does it like?” I am also very concerned about the thousands of acres of yards usually right smack in the middle of CT’s fragmented forest being planted with “deer-resistant” plants instead of natives.”
Dave wrote: “In my own yard, I observe the deer “sampling” the plants they encounter that are to their liking. In other words, they walk by and take a nip (or two or three) from each the many plants they encounter as they pass. If the proportions between unpalatable invasives and deer resistant plants to palatable natives changes, would not the smaller relative numbers of natives be browsed more heavily? The difference would be between many plants contributing a part of their foliage to the meal contrasted with fewer plants being the whole meal. The latter would be much more destructive to the native population than the former. Or so I’m thinking. Any thoughts?”
David wrote: “On the other hand — if homeowners who’ve fenced their properties extensively plant local genotypes that might otherwise be devastated by deer, will they be helping protect and diversify the gene pool?”
David wrote: “It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about, and would like to hear from others. In Westchester, in general, deer resistant plantings are often found in yards that are encircled with formidable deer fencing — almost a belt and suspenders approach, I suppose. Both [fencing and planting of deer-resistant species] in combination would likely push the same number of deer into a shrinking feeding area. As less palatable plants increase in coverage, those favored native plants, I suspect, would be subject to even more acute browsing pressures.”
I wrote: “Meanwhile, the deer excluded from the yards are eating the remaining wild lands to the ground- killing hundreds of other animal species. To me the only answer is we need to take responsibility for the deer populations and, in areas like Fairfield County, where we have 6 to 10 times our sustainable deer quota, reduce the population by the only effective available means: hunting. No one likes to shoot Bambi but not shooting Bambi is actually more cruel to Bambi and hundreds of other species.”
Later, that week, at Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve I watched a doe devouring silky dogwood while avoiding the adjoining invasive Japanese knotweed. The riverbank where she’s fond of spending her summers is on our JKW remediation schedule for 2 to 3 years from now and even then we will have to go slowly to make sure that the mink, muskrat, woodchuck, nesting mallard, red-winged blackbird, kingbird, green heron, and other critters who depend on the understory of that bank for habitat always have enough cover. Meanwhile, we are counting on most of the silky dogwood surviving the Japanese Knotweed and being the foundation for repopulating the bank understory with natives. Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is a key late summer fruit source for birds and small mammals, as well as wonderful habitat for the riverbank animals and water animals that shelter in its overhanging branches. It is also a larvae host for the spring azure butterfly. Further, it’s a great riparian bank stabilizer. However, each bite the doe takes shifts the balance in favor of the Japanese Knotweed. The following day, she is back, with a friend.
I could go on with facts, figures and opinions. However, I’m sure that all of you who live in the impacted parts of North America have also been thinking about this. Likewise, those of you who live elsewhere may have had similar experiences that can help us here.
So how did we get to this point? What are the short and long-term measures that we need to take to fix it? What do you and I personally need to do to get there?
P.S. wonderful article by teammate Carol Duke on what it’s like to have a sustainable number of deer. I hope they are taking steps to keep the herd in balance. I hope some day we can look at the deer in my area with equal fondness.
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