THE FOREST HEATH FALLACY    Science Indicates that

Deer Reduction was not Justified on the Basis of Forest Health

By John Eveland

August 26, 2014

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has attempted to justify its deer reduction program on three issues – to improve deer health, forest health, and biodiversity. Deer health was addressed in the previous DMS No. 12.

Regarding Forest Health. A healthy forest is not achieved by uncontrolled seedling regeneration, but, instead, by accomplishing two goals: (1) establishing enough seedlings to fully restock the next generation of commercially harvestable forests, and (2) providing ample habitat (food and cover) for game and nongame species of wildlife. Multiple analyses indicate that blaming deer for destroying forest health is unjustified.

First, healthy pH-balanced forest soils have the capacity to regenerate tens-of-thousands of seedlings per acre. A single oak tree can produce 80,000 acorns per year. Considering that it requires only about 150-220 six-foot seedlings per acre to fully restock a forest with 80-120 mature trees per acre, then if it were not for deer and other wildlife eating excess mast (fruits, berries, and nuts) and seedlings, the forest could overstock and suffer from competition for nutrients, water, and sunlight. Although PGC and foresters demonize deer for eating mast and seedlings, herbivores provide a vital service toward achieving a healthy forest.

Secondly, a U.S. Forest Service survey indicated that Pennsylvania forests are about 90% fully to moderately stocked. The three predominate species are red maple (20% of trees), red oak (13%), and black cherry (12%) – two of which (red oak and black cherry) are the state's most marketable timber species. This indicates that Pennsylvania forests have been successfully restocking themselves throughout the past century.

Thirdly, a 2006 Browse Survey that was conducted by DCNR on over 47,000 plots throughout State Forests concluded that the deer herd had not been reduced far enough or long enough. However, at close inspection of the data, the opposite conclusion was discovered. Surveying all forest tree seedlings from 2" to 6' tall, 68% were unbrowsed; 22% were lightly browsed (a combined 90%); another 6% were moderately browsed (accounting for a combined 96% of tree seedlings); and only 4% of seedlings were heavily browsed.

Fourth, Bill Capouillez (PGC's Wildlife Habitat Management Director and chief forester) stated at a board of commissioners' meeting that there has been no change in the trends of forest regeneration after over 10 years of deer herd reduction: "In some years regeneration is up in a particular WMU, and down the next."

Fifth, regarding red oak propagation, according to a Penn State publication, "Forest hydrologist William Sharpe – who has chronicled the effects of acid rain in Pennsylvania for several decades – also has watched as red oaks decline and red maples become predominant. He maintains that soils in many places have become too acidic to support adequate growth of red oak. According to Dr. Sharpe, large mature oaks are dying, and that cannot be blamed on deer. Penn State research in the 1970s found that deer actually preferred to browse red maple over red oak, so Sharpe does not subscribe to the deer hypothesis."

Sixth, PGC's former chief forester notified commissioners: "I am concerned AND angered by the mismanagement of the deer herd in PA under the guise of biodiversity. A feigned lack of forest regeneration never existed. Research by Penn State professors show acid rain, rodents, ferns, et. al. have more impact on a lack of new regeneration than deer. I saw this happening during my career, repeatedly."

Therefore, based on the forest health issue, there is no justification for herd reduction. Nevertheless, foresters continue a relentless lobbying campaign for increased herd reduction, and PGC continues to comply with their demands. The biodiversity issue is addressed in the next Deer Man





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