I attended “Deer in the Woods,” a program about the synergy between the deer population and the forest in Windham County, sponsored by the Dummerston Conservation Committee.
The program began with opening statements from the four panelists: George Weir, a consulting forester; Nick Fortin, the lead deer biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife; Tim Morton, a Stewardship Forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation; and David Deen, a long-time representative to the Vermont Legislature who chairs the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources. All together, these four represent well over a century of experience in the field.
They were also all well-spoken, and all spoke about the changes over time in Windham County’s forests and deer herd. The two are closely connected. And they all agree: deer overpopulation combined with a decline in hunting has had a deleterious effect on the forest.
Many hunters disagree, and it just may be because they have long memories – going back to the fifties, sixties and seventies, when the deer population exploded onto abandoned farms. By the 1970’s, the deer herd was in poor condition due to overpopulation. And even the hunters in the room last night agreed that Vermont’s deer are smaller than New Hampshire’s, although they probably don’t agree that Vermont’s herd is an overabundant one.
Vermont’s hunters are a passionate group, going right back to Vermont’s constitution, which guarantees Vermonters the right to hunt. But hunters are possibly more endangered than deer these days, which contributes to the herd being too big for the health of the forest.
The problem, put simply, is this: Deer graze on greenery and browse on twigs, and they eat a lot – about about ten to fifteen pounds of food a day. Once the grass and leaves die off in the fall, the deer turn toward browse, with a taste for oak, ash and sugar maple saplings.
Oak, ash and sugar maple are among Vermont’s most valuable trees, and they grow slowly. The deer have eaten them down to the ground in the southeastern part of the state, allowing opportunistic, faster-growing, less desirable, species to move in, including beech, black birch and invasive species, like glossy buckthorn. Several panelists and attendees attested to forests where the only oak standing were old oak; replacement generations have been eaten by deer.
Of course, the problem is not simple, and this is just one aspect of a complex ecosystem that includes changes in climate, human habitation and activity, and natural processes. What’s clear to me, however, is that trees, deer and humans are all part of the living landscape. And of these three, it’s the humans who are likeliest to protect the landscape – or degrade it.
One of the many, complex, reasons I’ve taken up hunting is to better understand the forested land on which I live.
Time’s running out to join Kate & me for Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom WALKshop on November 4 in southern Vermont. In this WALKshop you’ll learn how to turn the everyday activities of walking and writing into listening posts through which you can hear and heed your inner voice. Learn more.