The Potomac Highlands
Watershed School's Environmental Forum provides a setting for
students and teachers to explore regionally important environmental
issues in depth. Students work both as a class and with other
students across the internet to understand problems and to seek solutions that are broadly
acceptable to their communities.
Current eForum is
All past eForums are archived
here. CI's highlights from
past eForums are here.
“This was great!
This was the hardest school work that I have done in
my whole life.”
Autumn 2005 Deer Forum Participant
The Environmental Forum topic was on the
effects of deer overpopulation on our region, and what to do about it.
This forum began on Monday, October 24 and ended on Friday, November 11, 2005.
School, Southern Pines, NC
Science & regular Env. Science
Petersburg High School, Petersburg, WV
Berkeley Springs High School, Berkeley Springs, WV
Science and Vo-Ag
Hampshire High School, Romney, Romney, WV
Science class & Advanced Env. Science
Pictures of these classes installing deer fence are here.
This Forum will use the following format:
Students read background
material on this page, and gather information from additional
sources as needed.
Each classroom breaks into
three to four groups, with each group representing a
stakeholder's point of view (POV): farmer, hunter, forester, the
Groups in each class prepare "position papers" representative of
their POV. These papers are handed in to
their teacher and sent to CI for posting on the website (either
form or by
Due October 28.
- POVS (1st
draft) NOW POSTED (10/30/05)
- click on the one you want).
the forest, AND, NEW ON
deer! We are missing some entries and will post
them as soon as they arrive.
Plus, I just had to
include the following entry from Hampshire High, on behalf
of the forest:
the Lorax, I speak for the trees.
speak for the trees, ‘cause no tree has a tongue,
deer they are eaten, left open to disease,
Unless they are stopped, they will have no more young.
deer they dislike, for trees they outnumber,
many trees made by deer now to slumber,
eat many seeds and all acorns that fall.
now can trees grow, if they’re eaten when small?
I can tell you that I know ONE way,
before you can decide, listen to all that I say.
Since nature has long kept balance on her own,
think it only fitting, that she retain the throne.
by fences, or reseeding, or hunting can she thrive,
forest, as always, needs new life to survive,
they once hunted, with skill like Orion,
Again nature cries “Wolf! and Mountain lion!”
poem by Combs, Huff, & Barry
Interschool POV groups read their peer's postings, refine their
position papers, and submit their final positions to the web.
Don't worry if the first POVs are a
bit rough. Now is the time to refine both your language
and thinking as you read your peer's responses. You need to
make a clear, well organized statement that briefly lays out the
issue as it relates to your stakeholder group, suggest how deer
should be managed to protect those interests, and ensure that
your position is based on objective facts that you will be able
to use in the third week to argue persuasively for the interests
of your group.
THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS TO PEERS ARE POSTED HERE.
Due by November 4.
Based on each school's final POV position papers, they then seek
a consensus position that balances the needs of each POV
(weighting them as to relative importance if necessary), propose
and support a policy process that can achieve that outcome, and
define what they would consider to be an acceptable outcome.
Some helpful thoughts from the
Final positions are being
submitted to CI for posting on this site and to a local paper
for publishing if desired. Petersburg's consensus position
Berkeley Springs teams did group papers
Hampshire class consensus papers
There are not a lot of ground rules
for this Forum. All serious entries will be posted as
submitted (including typos and grammatical errors). "Act of
God" solutions will not be considered. In other words, you may
not assume that the problem will solve itself. We are aware
that Chronic Wasting Disease has now been found in deer in our area
- if you choose to use this or other diseases as a deliberate part
of your "solution" that is up to you. Just keep in mind that
what you write will be available for the entire world to read.
here to view a short slide show about deer impacts on our
forested lands. (Note: this is a Flash presentation so you
need Flash to run it. It is 1 MB; if you have a dial-up
connection it will take a few minutes to download.)
To get things started, CI asked a WV forester and
a WV agronomist for their perspective on the effects of deer overpopulation on
the health of forests and viability of farming, respectively.
Consulting Forester David Warner (www.timberlandconsulting.com).
Dave's comments are excerpted below; his complete text is
As a forester, I probably have a somewhat different perspective on the deer
population than, say, hunters or other nature enthusiasts. I see the impact
of a high deer population on the forest vegetation, especially in the
understory layers where they have the highest and most immediate impact. The
dense vegetation layer, presence of tree seedlings, forbs, shrubs, and
wildflowers, even the accumulation of fallen leaves that forms much of the
litter layer on the forest floor, has largely disappeared over the past 25
years. I have watched the natural condition continue to deteriorate until
now wildflowers are a rare sight and browse lines, only seen before in areas
of extreme concentration such as in Canaan Valley State Park, have become
present almost everywhere in Hampshire, Mineral, Hardy, and to some extent
I used to see oak and other tree seedlings surviving under the forest canopy
virtually everywhere. In the last five years I can only remember seeing a
few scattered oak seedlings in maybe a couple of places in Hampshire County.
I have not seen trillium or most other once-common wildflowers for years,
except in a few small, isolated places in Hampshire County. Areas that were
timbered heavily 20 years ago or more have a good stand of young oak
established. Many places cut within the past 10 year or so, have virtually
no regeneration, largely due to the out-of-control deer population that
consumes everything in reach.
I’ve taken trips into Pennsylvania and seen areas the Pennsylvania
Department of Natural Resources thinks has an extremely high deer
population. Contrasted to what I see every day, they don’t even begin to
have a deer problem. The PA DNR is building protective deer exclusion fences
at the rate of about 5-6,000 acres per year. Inside these fences they have
ample tree seedlings and wildflowers that have apparently popped up from
dormant seed lying latent in the soil. Outside of the protected areas there
are still some scattered oaks and other tree seedlings and occasionally a
few wildflowers. In this part of WV the situation has persisted so long I
worry about the return of many of our native wildflowers. We don’t know the
dormant seed viability for most of these species.
Other wildlife also depends upon this same habitat. Wildlife is directly
dependant upon the vegetation of the area and the habitat management. As
this habitat continues to be degraded, it cuts into its capacity to support
native species, and is probably part of the reason we are seeing such an
increase in exotic invasive plants.
Agronomist. William Grafton, West Virginia
University. Many people feel deer have reached biological,
ethical, and economic carrying capacities in virtually all of West Virginia.
The biological carrying capacity occurs when births equal deaths, and the
population reaches the maximum number of animals that the environment can
support. Before the deer population reaches the biological and ethical
carrying capacities, it will have gone beyond the economic (societal)
carrying capacity. This is the point at which deer become an economic
liability: causing highway accidents, destroying crops and orchards,
damaging gardens and ornamentals, etc. West Virginia's deer herd has
not reached the biological carrying capacity, yet. There are still
hayfields, suburban ornamentals, flowers and landscaping grass and plants,
as well as, recent cutover forests to support a larger deer herd.
However, overpopulation already has caused negative impacts on forest
vegetation, tree regeneration and forest wildlife as a whole. The deer
population has exceeded the ecological carrying capacity, which is the level
where deer do not adversely affect associated forest species such as ruffed
grouse, rabbits, and ground dwelling songbirds.
incensed that deer are managed at high levels that can be the difference
between profit and bankruptcy. They have complained loudly and often
about damage to crops and the spread of disease from deer to livestock.
Surveys during the 1980s indicated deer damage costs to West Virginia's
agriculture was about $35 million annually. No surveys have been made
recently to update these figures. Primary damages have occurred to
orchards, alfalfa, and corn. However, specialty crops such as berries,
grapes, pumpkins, etc. are also severely damaged. Many farmers state
that deer damage has forced them to quit farming or to switch to crops of
lesser value but more resistant to deer herbivory. Most switches are
to grass, hay, and pasture and away from corn, alfalfa, and truck crops.
It is difficult to
place dollar values on deer damage, but the fact remains that a mature deer
eats 5-7 pound of plants or fruits per day. When this food comes from
agricultural crops, farmers often face a critical situation. Severe
damage occurs when deer browse young plants of apple, alfalfa, grape,
and corn (especially as the silk stage). These damaged young plants
can never reach full economic value despite the already heavy economic
investment in seed/seedlings, fertilizer, ground preparation, etc.
Gardening was once a way
of life in West Virginia. Deer that formerly lived in the forest have
adapted to humans and their pets. They now readily show up in for the
smorgasboard in the garden and landscaped yards.
What do we mean by overabundant?
Well, using WV Division of Natural Resources buck kill numbers, the
white-tail population in the Cacapon’s Lost River watershed was
estimated at 11,854, or about 67 per square mile back in 1998.
What does that number mean? The Bureau of Forestry in
Pennsylvania has this to say: "White-tailed deer populations in
excess of 20 per square mile are common in many areas of state
forest land and such populations are largely responsible for the
lack of woody and herbaceous regeneration. Deer exclusion fence
studies have documented that deer populations of 16 per square mile
or less allow regeneration of woody and herbaceous species to occur,
thus preserving the species diversity present in the forest when
normal bureau harvesting activities occur."
Here's the link.
You can learn about the ecosystem
impacts of overabundant deer and the challenges of controlling them
here. (Note: the first link is to Audubon Pennsylvania's major
Deer in Forest Habitat From an Ecosystem Perspective; I
suggest you start with the Executive Summary to this report.)
clip on top Pennsylvania wildlife biologist Gary Alt will
provide a sense of the challenges. Mr. Alt is now a former PA
DNR employee - he quit because they wouldn't aggressively face the
deer problem and is now working independently with other groups
trying to address overpopulation.
at West Virginia University found
that deer foraging threatens the survival of ginseng, a medicinal
plant that lives on our forest floor and generates more than $2
million in income annually for harvesters. The original
research paper is
here. When the lead researcher involved in that project
was interviewed on National Public Radio about their results, he
made the startling statement that we need to restore major
predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, to protect our forests
from overgrazing by deer. Why would he be willing to go on
national radio and say something so controversial? You can
find some clues
here. This story was covered by all the major media,
The economic impacts of overabundant
deer are staggering.
a very good overview. Use
for an excellent piece on the impacts of deer on agriculture in New
About now you probably think we hate
deer. We don't. They are beautiful animals that play an
essential role in our ecosystem, and provide pleasure of many kinds
to many people. The problem is ours. The New York Times
published an editorial on March 30, 2005 that really said it very
"Deer are simply heeding
the biological imperative to go forth and multiply. With no
natural predators, and the suburbs a year-round salad bar, they
have slipped out of their ecological niche - and it's our fault,
not theirs. The deer did not ask human beings to create the kind
of predator-free suburban landscapes in which they now thrive.
But the mountain lion, gray wolf and bobcat are not about to
return, and the houses and highways are staying put. People,
therefore, must own up to their place in a compromised food
chain, and assume the responsibility for managing it well.
contradict our innate assumption that only ugly creatures can be
vermin. As the recent release of the "Bambi" DVD reminds us,
they seem miscast as villains. But wise conservation means
looking at the environment as a whole - from the smallest
wildflower on forest floor to the biggest brown-eyed herbivore.
The whole system - not just the prettiest mammals - needs
WV Division of Natural Resources offers suggestions for controlling
agricultural damage from deer
here, discusses deer management to protect habitat
fundamentals of deer management and estimating deer populations
State has a nice and short piece on a deer control experiment
here. Pennsylvania is leading the way in using fencing to
help regenerate forests; read about that
and then see if you can find more information about deer
fencing on the web.
Read about a WV demonstration project
that is planting trees along the South Branch of the Potomac and
here and then click
here for early
Last year, a
number of students noted that the deer population seemed to be
getting smaller over the last couple of years. The following
graph showing data on the buck harvest since 1995 would support that
observation -- but it also indicates that the size
deer harvest fell sharply in 1998 then climbed rapidly in the
following several years. If it is in fact getting smaller now,
what could cause that change? WVDNR has said that wildlife
biologists had predicted an increase for 2004, but that larger than
expected harvest declines may have been caused by the record
antlerless deer harvest in 2002, the decline might be due to several
years of poor acorn production, or bad weather in the first three
days of the season may have kept people out of the woods (Moorefield
Examiner, Dec 18, 2004). The last several winters may also
have reduced the number of fawns carried to term, or caused
increased over-winter mortality in the deer herd.
Whatever the cause - is this a trend? A cyclic variation?
Or something else? WVDNR uses the buck harvest to estimate the
total deer population; to learn more about how DNR does it, click
using their formula to estimate the deer population per square mile
in your county for the years in the graph at left.
Finally, something "off the wall" to
think about from CI's Neil Gillies. Many residents of the
Potomac Highlands have noticed changes in the behavior of local
streams; they seem to dry up more rapidly, and rise and fall much
more quickly, than they used to. Some people assume that the
streams dry up quickly because we are using too much groundwater.
Others assume that streams have become so "flashy" due to rapid
development in the area. Development and excess groundwater
use can certainly cause these kinds of changes, but a recent study
of water resources in Hardy County concluded that we are barely
tapping the available groundwater. And, while the region is
certainly developing very rapidly, the amount of developed land with
impervious surfaces is still quite small. Our landscape
remains mostly forested. What else is happening across our
landscape that could be causing these changes (remember, the
evidence for these changes are based on personal, not scientific,
Warner noted (above) that the accumulation of fallen leaves that
forms much of the litter layer on the forest floor "has largely
disappeared over the past 25 years." This could be due to more
leaves blowing off the hillsides due to sparse understory vegetation
- caused by excessive browsing by deer. Or due to lower
overall production of leaves - due to fewer plants caused by
overgrazing by deer. Mr. Warner has also heard theories and
spoken to those who claim they have seen deer eating dry leaves.
Regardless of the reason, the role that a thick bed of decaying
forest leaves plays in in slowing runoff, storing moisture, and
cycling nutrients may be diminished – leading to drier hillsides,
more runoff, and less infiltration - which could lead to less
groundwater recharge, drought stressed forests, and flashier streams
that dry up easily. What do you think? Is it possible that
too many deer could have an impact on regional hydrology? Are
there other examples of animals changing the hydrology of a region?
Some well designed science experiments would be needed to separate
truth from all this conjecture (are the streams really drier and
flashier, are there really fewer leaves, etc.) - but science always
begins with a question.