The Potomac Highlands Watershed School
Oh Deer! Environmental Forum
Consulting Forester David Warner
Dave's comments are excerpted below; his complete text is here.
As a forester, I probably have a somewhat different perspective on the deer population than, say, hunters or other nature enthusiasts. I see the impact of a high deer population on the forest vegetation, especially in the understory layers where they have the highest and most immediate impact. The dense vegetation layer, presence of tree seedlings, forbs, shrubs, and wildflowers, even the accumulation of fallen leaves that forms much of the litter layer on the forest floor, has largely disappeared over the past 25 years. I have watched the natural condition continue to deteriorate until now wildflowers are a rare sight and browse lines, only seen before in areas of extreme concentration such as in Canaan Valley State Park, have become present almost everywhere in Hampshire, Mineral, Hardy, and to some extent Morgan counties.
I used to see oak and other tree seedlings surviving under the forest canopy virtually everywhere. In the last five years I can only remember seeing a few scattered oak seedlings in maybe a couple of places in Hampshire County. I have not seen trillium or most other once-common wildflowers for years, except in a few small, isolated places in Hampshire County. Areas that were timbered heavily 20 years ago or more have a good stand of young oak established. Many places cut within the past 10 year or so, have virtually no regeneration, largely due to the out-of-control deer population that consumes everything in reach.
Iíve taken trips into Pennsylvania and seen areas the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources thinks has an extremely high deer population. Contrasted to what I see every day, they donít even begin to have a deer problem. The PA DNR is building protective deer exclusion fences at the rate of about 5-6,000 acres per year. Inside these fences they have ample tree seedlings and wildflowers that have apparently popped up from dormant seed lying latent in the soil. Outside of the protected areas there are still some scattered oaks and other tree seedlings and occasionally a few wildflowers. In this part of WV the situation has persisted so long I worry about the return of many of our native wildflowers. We donít know the dormant seed viability for most of these species.
Other wildlife also depends upon this same habitat. Wildlife is directly dependant upon the vegetation of the area and the habitat management. As this habitat continues to be degraded, it cuts into its capacity to support native species, and is probably part of the reason we are seeing such an increase in exotic invasive plants.