PGC's Forest Regeneration Myth

By John Eveland
June 15, 2015


PGC is now using a single circumstance – a ploy – in an attempt to justify the agency's deer-reduction program and to halt resolution of the deer-reduction program: using fenced exclosures to demonstrate that deer eat seedlings and that forest vegetation will increase in the absence of deer.

• A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article and picture reported how a local women's garden club was shocked to see more seedlings inside the fenced area than outside.

• State legislators and PGC's own Board of Commissioners are routinely driven to deer exclosures in order to demonstrate denser vegetation inside deer exclosures.

Using this technique, PGC is able to demonstrate to laymen that deer eat vegetation. However, so, too, do cattle in a pasture. If cattle were fenced out of the pasture, certainly it could be demonstrated that the grass would grow taller with more abundant wildflowers. However, the impact to the rancher would be catastrophic – the cattle would die and so would his ranch. Instead, the rancher manages the number of cattle on his pasture (or range) to produce the maximum number of cattle on a sustainable basis over time without destroying the grass-producing health of the pasture. This process is called "maximum sustained yield", and has been successfully used for generations in agriculture and wildlife management throughout America.

It should be noted that whereas PGC is attempting to justify the drastic and permanent reduction of Pennsylvania's dominant herbivore on the premise that deer eat forest vegetation, then it seems possible that this same simple premise could be applied toward eliminating other dominant herbivores from their respective ecosystems – such as caribou from the tundra, moose from boreal forests, elk from the Rocky Mountain West, bison from the Great Plains, and even elephants from the African savannah. All of these dominant herbivores eat more vegetation per day than deer, and if they were eliminated, then does PGC's fallacious line of reasoning suggest that there would be a healthier and happier ecosystem? Would large predators then become the next targets of such a nonsensical premise of environmental ideologues? According to PGC's premise, an ideologue, fringe environmentalist, developer, or unscrupulous person could use this deceptive and unscientific approach to eliminate any animal from its natural environment.

THE SCIENCE OF REGENERATION. Unabated seedling regeneration in the absence of dominant herbivores (especially deer) in the forest ecosystem becomes increasing detrimental and scientifically counterproductive as the number and density of tree seedlings increases. Uncontrolled regeneration increases seedling competition for light, nutrients, water, and living space – choking out the forest and resulting in an unhealthy ecosystem that is susceptible to forest diseases and parasites.

Only about 120-250 advanced tree seedlings per acre are normally required to produce a next generation of healthy northern hardwood forests that will contain 80-120 trees per acre at maturity. Instead, PGC is attempting to deceive citizens, legislators, and its own BOC with the idea that unabated seedling regeneration (that could be as high as tens-of-thousands or even hundreds-of-thousands of seedlings per acre) is a normal condition of a healthy, forest ecosystem. This is, of course, not the case.

As an example, a single large oak tree has the potential to produce 80,000 acorns (and thus 80,000 seedlings if left uneaten and unbrowsed) in a given year. Considering that a fully stocked forest could support 100 or more mature oaks per acre, if left unabated to regenerate without thinning by herbivores and seed-eaters (such as happens inside a deer exclosure), this single acre has the potential to regenerate 8,000,000 seedlings per acre in a single year. Over the course of an oak's lifetime, such unabated and astronomical regeneration would likely quickly stunt the growth-rate and health of the forest for both plants and animals. Remember that it only takes a single acorn over the course of an oak's lifetime to restock the oak. All other regeneration is excess that is used for food and cover for deer and other wildlife.

Herbivores such as deer, mice and small mammals, rabbits, and furbearers consume excess vegetation and seeds. Even songbirds eat seeds, including acorns, toward creating a natural balance in the ecosystem between regeneration and wildlife.

PGC has disrupted this natural balance by eliminating Pennsylvania's dominant herbivore, white-tailed deer, in an attempt to satisfy the wishes of foresters and fringe environmentalists – many of whom simply harbor distain for the sport of hunting.

In reality, forest regeneration has two scientific purposes:
(1) to restock a next generation of forests.
(2) to provide habitat (food and cover) for wildlife – including deer, other game, and nongame species of birds and mammals.

Regarding restocking, since first cutting our virgin forests over 100 years ago Pennsylvania has produced some of the world's finest hardwood forests. This has continued for generations to the present.

Regarding wildlife habitat, for generations Pennsylvania forests have supported diverse populations of wildlife. For decades prior to herd reduction, the commonwealth was recognized as one of the top two deer-hunting states in the nation, had up to 1.3 million hunters, and was a recreational haven for bird-watchers and wildlife enthusiasts.

CONCLUSION. There had never been a problem with forest seedling regeneration that was caused by deer – not for restocking a next generation of forests, and not for wildlife habitat.

Deer reduction represents the greatest conservation mistake in the history of the Game Commission. It was caused by a single forester in DCNR and an environmental ideologue who took advantage of a 1998 German-based Green Certification opportunity and acted on an emotional whim – without a prior cost/benefit analysis and without scientific verification. A 2012 government study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee discovered that PGC's deer-reduction program was caused by DCNR's green certification program. Both programs were proven to be based on politics instead of science, and are dismal failures. As a result, PGC is now attempting to justify deer reduction by using deer exclosures to demonstrate that deer eat vegetation. While PGC might be successful in impressing some laymen and garden clubs with this unscientific myth, their desperate premise has little relevance regarding the realities of a functioning, healthy forest ecosystem.





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