Notes From a County Forester: The Deer Dilemna
In walking the woods of Chittenden County, landscape-level trends become increasingly apparent. One surprise has been evidence of an over-abundance of white-tailed deer on the landscape, and the negative influence of deer on young trees (“regeneration”) in the forest. In winter, a deer eats, or “browses,” 6-8% of its body weight, about 10 -15 pounds of buds and twigs, per day. The damage from this browsing can easily kill young seedlings and saplings or lend them the appearance of stunted “bonsai” trees. Where the deer population is dense, browsing can have a huge impact on the composition of regeneration in the forest --- they prefer to eat certain species like oak, sugar maple, ash, and yellow birch, and are much less likely to browse beech, black birch and invasive exotic plants (among others). This discourages the growth of a diversity of native species (always our goal) and promotes a less diverse forest. Ironically, by ignoring the species they don’t like to eat deer also encourage these species, providing lower-quality browse for future generations of deer and lowering populations of mast-producing species that deer rely on like oak.
Deer were not always prominent here. In pre-settlement Vermont deer were uncommon, small herds restricted mostly to the Connecticut River and Champlain Valleys. Along with Caribou, elk, turkey, beaver, moose, bear, otters, fishers, marten, Canada geese and others, they were extirpated from Vermont in the 1800’s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Catamounts and wolves, subject to a 1787 bounty in Vermont, were eliminated from the state during that time as well.
Following the re-introduction of 17 deer near Rutland in 1878, Vermont’s deer population recovered and exploded in the 1940’s-60’s. The recovery of Vermont’s forested habitat after the sheep craze of the 1800’s was one reason for this, as was a lack of predation. Coyotes, not known to exist in Vermont before the 1940’s, moved into the state, but can’t fully fill the niche vacated by our extirpated top predators. Since the 1960’s deer populations have decreased, but are still high in many areas. Hunting helps, but less and less Vermonters hunt, and deer are well-adapted to our increasingly developed landscape. They are a “generalist,” able to thrive in a wide array of habitat conditions, relatively unfazed by forest fragmentation and development.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s 2018 Antlerless Recommendation states that deer are above carrying capacity state-wide, too many deer for the amount of habitat we have. This is not just a problem for our forests: when deer are overpopulated they become less healthy. In the 1960’s, when deer populations were very high, the size, condition, health, and reproductive rates of Vermont’s deer plummeted.
Because of the way that deer breed (one buck can mate with several does), hunting only, or mostly, male deer usually doesn’t lead to a meaningful reduction in deer populations. The best way to lower populations is to hunt does (“antlerless” deer). For a variety of reasons, but largely due to tradition (dating back to the first managed deer hunting season in Vermont in 1897) Vermont is the only state in the country that does not allow the hunting of antlerless deer with a rifle.
So what can we do? Advocating for more hunting of antlerless deer is a start. However, there are some other steps you can take to mitigate this problem on your own woodlot. Firstly, allow hunting on your land. While we can’t bring back our top predators, we can try to keep populations at a healthy level. If you can’t stomach having your land totally open to hunting, consider giving permission one or two trusted friends or neighbors. Consider offering up the opportunity to hunt on your land on Front Porch Forum, or visiting Vermont Fish and Wildlife’s “Landowner-Hunter Connection” website (https://anrweb.vt.gov/FWD/FW/LandOwnerRegistration.aspx).
Secondly, thoughtful forest management can “overwhelm” the deer --- creating an abundance of regeneration that exceeds your deer herd’s ability to browse. Careful harvesting can also create a more diverse forest, which will be healthier and more resilient in the long term, and provide better wildlife habitat for more species. Contact me or a licensed consulting forester or visit VTCutWithConfidence.com for more details on timber harvesting.
Finally, when you do engage in active forest management, leave the tops of trees and brush “un-lopped.” While leaving brush “high” may seem messy, this provides a structural barrier, making it harder for deer to browse your regeneration.
Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester. He can be reached at email@example.com, (802)-585-9099, or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.