2017-12-06 / From the Forest

From The Forest

Catskill Forester Ryan Trapani Describes: Growing Deer Debate at Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society) Program

Most local residents are only too familiar with the problem: the movement of deer from our forests into our backyards, vegetable gardens, and flower beds. Ryan Trapani, Director of Forest Services for the Catskill Forest Association, put the issue into historical context when he spoke at a recent program sponsored by the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society (TOLHPS) in Highland, Ulster County.

Trapani described both the history of the problem and the current search for a solution, which he termed the “deer debate,” between those who want to reduce the deer population and those who seek to manage the deer habitat and lure the animals back into the woods. He presented the pros and cons of both sides of the argument.

Trapani’s speaking style – amusing his listeners by reading the minds of the deer as well as the humans (and sometimes the trees) – frequently made it seem as if the best solution would be a deal between humans and deer.

Humans to deer: You are beautiful, and we like to see you and hunt you, but you must stay out of our gardens.

Deer to humans: If you want us to stay out of your neighborhoods, we need forests with plants we can eat instead of just tall shade trees with only bad-tasting ferns growing below.

From the forest’s point of view, the success of the deal requires maintaining healthy, diverse woodlands. Trapani stressed that the most significant impacts on forests today come from humans and deer.

From Forests to Farms and Back Again

For centuries, the deal between humans and deer was managed by fire – some purposeful and some probably accidental. Native Americans, Trapani said, managed diversity in the forest by periodic burning. They created “a pyrogenic landscape with a fruitful legacy.” After each burning, the forests grew back, with young oak, hickory, chestnut, walnut, and several berry bushes, providing abundant food for deer. In turn, the deer provided food, tools, and leather for the humans.

The arrival of European settlers destroyed the cycle, as they cleared the land. Whether for pasture or, more recently, for parking lots, they didn’t want the trees to grow back. While the deer were a significant source of meat for early settlers, the newcomers were really managing the land for domestic livestock or crops. “Ask a corn farmer how he feels about deer,” Trapani suggested. “Wildlife is not desired. Deer are just a nuisance.”

Thousands of sawmills spread across the northeast, and industry peaked in the late 19th century. With the disappearance of their habitat the deer left too, except from areas with the worst farmland, high up in the Catskills and the Adirondacks.

Then the landscape changed again, as farms were abandoned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Trapani, who grew up in New Paltz and has family in Highland, continued the story with a personal note. “My grandfather, who was born in 1921, never hunted for deer. There were no deer. My father hunted rabbit.” But by the 1970’s, he said, “The young forest was coming back like crazy,” and when Trapani began hunting in the 1990’s, the deer were back too.

But the story doesn’t end there. Unlike post-burn forests in the earlier centuries, these new forests didn’t begin with a variety of seeds burst open by fire. There was less diversity, and as the trees grew taller, the understory was too shaded to survive except for the carpet of fern in nearby forests today. That’s good if you are a hemlock, says Trapani, “You think, ‘I can sit in the shade for 100 years.’ But if you are a deer, you think, ‘We ate everything here already.’”

Who is to blame?

Who is to blame? Trapani made clear that people are, to a large degree, because land clearing for agriculture and eventually abandoning the farms is not good forest management. Deer themselves are also partly responsible. The Nature Conservancy, Trapani reported, has labeled deer browsing worse for our forests than global warming. By the time deer have eaten everything palatable in the young forests, there’s little left but a high tree cap blocking out sunlight, with only shade-resistant plants like ferns below. As Trapani pointed out, it’s fine habitat for black bears, but deer don’t have stepladders to climb up into the high branches.

“My kids will probably be bear hunters,” Trapani said. “There’s less deer for hunters.”

Statistically, deer population peaked a few decades ago, but those that remain have discovered a new habitat – ours. There is plenty of sunlight to nurture young, nourishing vegetation. “When you see a deer by the side of the road, it’s not there to see what the new Nissan Pathfinder looks like,” Trapani quipped. It’s there to find food.

Deer, he said, like everything we like.

Imagining a deer’s thoughts, Trapani exclaimed: “Look, some people even plant gardens without a fence!”

“So what do we do?” Trapani asked. It comes back to the same two choices: reduce the deer population or manage the habitat. But he added a caveat. It’s not about the number of deer, he explained, but instead it’s the number of deer for the quality of the habitat. “There used to be more deer, but less impact,” he stated. The deer population in the Catskills peaked 30-40 years ago, he said, and in Highland 5-15 years ago. Reduced numbers haven’t brought about reduced impact.

Trapani recommended making a mess in the woods – but doing so in a very specific way, by cutting trees and leaving them on the ground. Best of all are hinge cuts – cuts made several feet up with the upper part of the tree still connected but bending right down to the ground. The cut trees provide food for wildlife for two to five years, and seedlings start to come up. They also provide safe coverage for small animals. Are deer bothered by the cutting? “Nope,” said Trapani. “They move right in. It’s a good sign when you see does and fawns moving in.”

Reducing the deer population

Reducing the deer population also has its advocates, but it is more controversial. In our own backyards we have some success with commercial deer repellents, and we build fences. On a large scale, humans have tried contraception, but it is expensive, costing $500-$1,500 per doe and must be redone periodically. Surgical sterilization is also costly.

So far, the most successful method has been depending upon recreational hunters. But it’s expensive, and the typical hunter’s meat-to-table costs about $45 per pound. Professional sharpshooting costs about $200-$400 per deer plus $70-$125 for processing. Then the meat gets donated to food banks because it is illegal to sell wild meat. “You can sell a gall bladder from a bear but not meat from wild deer,” noted Trapani. Ownership rights also present an issue. The deer are owned by the government, but live primarily on private land. There’s something to be said, Trapani maintained, for compensating hunters for their time and incentivizing landowners for managing their deer habitat.

He concluded by reminding listeners that deer are not pests. They just need to be reconnected to our woodlands. “If your woods have only fern and red maples, you need a mess,” he reaffirmed.

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