By: Mike Marsh
The deer population in the eastern United States is starting to take its toll on the healthy balance of forest ecosystems. No vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on the ecosystem than the white-tailed deer. According to the Nature Conservancy, many state deer populations are continuing to rise well beyond historical norms. So where is all the harm in a large population of deer? The problem starts with what the deer are grazing on.
Deer feeding on preferential plant species has changed the composition and structure of forests. The Nature Conservancy states that in their opinion, there is no greater threat to forests than overpopulation of deer. They also say that only invasive exotic insects and disease have been comparable in magnitude to the issues forests are facing when there are too many deer.
Here is a map released by Quality Deer Management Association in 2008 depicting whitetail deer density in the United States. The northern part of the West Virginia area has one of the higher whitetail deer densities.
*The legend for the map is as follows: (Deer per square mile)*
- White = Rare, absent, or urban area with unknown populations.
- Green = Less than 15
- Yellow = 15 to 30
- Tan or Brown = 30 to 45
- Dark Brown = Greater than 45
The Nature Conservancy also says that cutting down the impact of deer’s plant diet is a key forest restoration strategy and in future it will become necessary in order to help maintain functioning forests in a climate that is already showing signs of warming. It is eye-opening to learn that overpopulation of deer actually has a more of a negative impact on forest ecosystems than the potential consequences of global warming.
Since deer management cannot be regulated at the federal level, the states have the right set their own regulations regarding wildlife. West Virginia specially has made efforts to reform these regulations because of the impact the deer population was having on the states timber production.
According to a report on the negative impacts of high deer population, published by the Office of Legislative Auditor in Charleston, West Virginia, the Division of Natural Resources has pursued a strategy increasing the hunting and fishing opportunities in West Virginia. The state of West Virginia has purchased land specifically dedicated to hunting and have also changed game management polices and increased deer population in the forests.
This is an issue for the state, and the report sees the DNR’s policy of further increasing the states deer population as not being in the best interest for the citizens of West Virginia.
The report claims that scientific research has determined that deer in populations over 20 deer per square mile harm forests saplings due to “over browsing”. The result of this is that these highly concentrated areas with deer are not seeing any regeneration of hardwood forests. Too many deer means negative effects on the state’s wood product industry, farm industry, and the ecological health of West Virginia’s ecosystem. The effects on timber production is the biggest concern for West Virginia because of the amount of money it generates for the economy.
The report says that the economic impact of hunting and fishing in West Virginia is around $200 million dollars annually, which is a fraction of what the wood products industry generates. The timber from West Virginia is worth $1.3 billion annually to the states economy. They claim that increasing the deer population may have a short term positive economic impact on West Virginia, but in the long term, the growing deer population will dramatically harm West Virginia’s ecosystem balance and the forest economy.
The amount of deer hunted in West Virginia has substantially grown each year. This table gives on idea of the rate at which deer have been harvested, but this still isn’t having much of an impact on slowing the of overpopulation of deer.
In places where deer density exceeds 20 per square mile, plant species such as sugar maple, white ash, tallow poplar, hemlock, pin cherry, oak, and aspen are eliminated from the ecosystem, and with high deer populations continuing to exist in these areas, there is a very slow regeneration of these commercial plant species. West Virginia’s economy is experiencing significant economic losses due to this fact. When an industry generates as much $1.3 billion annually, it is easy to see the concern that state environmentalists and economists have on the relationship between deer population and the declining timber revenue.
The question raised with all of the information in this report is how, or will, the state will come up with an ethical way to reduce the deer population. Simply encouraging more hunting is not going to be a solution that can fix this problem, and the idea of killing of any wildlife animal species in large numbers will have further ramifications on the ecosystem and the entire food chain. The timber industry may need to take a wait and see approach for now to determine whether or not this excess deer population problem will ever be fixed.