Growing Deer Population Hurts Survival Of Forests

The white-tailed deer was a rare creature across the East Coast 100 years ago. Now it is widely overpopulated, but what does that mean for forests? A decades-long experiment has found unsettling implications for bio-diversity and the long-term survival of forests.

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The white-tailed deer was a rare creature along the East Coast a hundred years ago. Now they seem to be everywhere. Across the country there are some 20 million white-tailed deer and many states are seeing record populations, populations that are expected to grow. That has had big implications for road safety and gardens. Now new warnings about the implications for bio-diversity and the long-term survival of forests.

Sabri Ben-Achour has the story.

SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: Back in 1990, scientists with the Smithsonians Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia closed off about 10 acres behind an eight-foot tall wire fence. Its called an exclosure. Its a world without deer and it doesnt really exist anymore anywhere else.

Bill McShea is a wildlife ecologist with the Smithsonian. And after passing through a rickety wire door...

(Soundbite of a metal door)

BEN-ACHOUR: ...he is standing in that world.

Mr. BILL MCSHEA (Wildlife Ecologist, Conservation Biology Institute, Smithsonian Institution): So here were inside this deer exclosure, right at the fence line here. And this fence has been up now for 21 years. So we're comparing inside the fence to outside the fence. And there's two things to notice. One is, its green on both sides of the fence. But in here, its a lot more diverse than out there.

BEN-ACHOUR: That is an understatement. The deer side of the fence has a carpet of grass, a shrubby looking thing, and some large trees - things that are either too big for deer to eat, or are among the very few plants they dont like to eat. Inside it is practically a jungle. Dozens of different almost exotic looking plants are tumbling over one another. Many of them are young trees.

Mr. MCSHEA: In here, I can see white ash and hickory and red maples and service berry. Were looking at 20, 30 species. If you look out there, its a much simpler world.

BEN-ACHOUR: And that simpler world is an aging world. Really, its a dying world, as far as forests go.

Mr. MCSHEA: The future is not good. Theres no teenagers here. There's no young adults. Everybody is a mature individual. Whereas inside this fence, you have the complete profile of ages. You have youngsters. You have teenagers you have middle-aged adults. You have the old trees. And when the old trees go, there is something here to take its place. Out there, I dont see anything out there thats a small tree.

BEN-ACHOUR: One of the surprising things theyve found with this experiment is that deer allow invasive species to flourish. And with fewer native plants, there are fewer birds who depend on them for nests and food. There are fewer mice and fewer chipmunks here when they have to compete with deer. It wasnt always this way.

A hundred years ago deer were nearly extinct in Maryland and extremely rare in Virginia. Newly minted state game departments rushed to the rescue, banning or regulating hunting and setting up parks.

Mr. MCSHEA: They went and got deer from Arkansas and brought them here to repopulate that area. So growing the deer population was intentional. Its a conservation story and it went just like they planned. And now the flipside has happened.

BEN-ACHOUR: Deer arent evil, McShea is quick to emphasize, but they dont have any natural predators anymore and they need to be managed. States rely on hunters and even hired sharpshooters. But McShea says in order to protect the long-term health of forests, a wider, more aggressive approach is necessary.

Mr. MCSHEA: We have time in that we dont have to make a decision this year.

BEN-ACHOUR: But he says, we dont have decades - trees dont live forever.

For NPR News, Im Sabri Ben-Achour in Washington.

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