I recently attended a program called “Deer in the Woods” 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 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’re all well spoken and knowledgeable about the changes over time in Windham County’s forests and deer herd – which are closely connected. And all agree that deer overpopulation combined with a decline in hunting has had a negative effect on the forest.
Not all hunters agree - perhaps because they remember when Vermont’s deer population exploded in the nineteen-fifties and sixties.
As a result, in 1979, the state implemented modern deer management practices to reduce the herd. And that wasn’t a popular move with Vermont’s hunters. But these days it’s the hunter population that’s in decline, contributing further to a larger than ideal herd.
The problem, put simply, is this: Deer graze on greenery and browse on twigs, eating about ten to fifteen pounds of food a day. Once the grass and leaves die off in the fall, the deer turn to saplings of oak, ash and sugar maple – some of Vermont’s most valuable and slow-growing trees. The deer have eaten whole groves of them down to the ground in my part of the state, allowing opportunistic, faster-growing species to move in, including beech, black birch and invasive species, like glossy buckthorn.
It’s not a simple problem, of course. It’s only one aspect of a complex ecosystem that includes changes in climate, human habitation and natural processes. But to me it’s clear that trees, deer and humans are all part of a living landscape, which requires all three elements to maintain a delicate balance.
Historically, hunters have been part of the system that protected that balance. And now, I’m one of them.