You work for years clearing brush, battling weeds and sucking smoke. Then one day it happens. Walking in your fledgling restored prairie, you discover an unfamiliar plant struggling to put up its first flower after being dormant for perhaps decades. Snap a picture, check out some of its key identifying features, and off to the computer to find out more. You discover it's plant “X,” a highly conservative plant species that is considered endangered! Wow! A sense of elation. Your hard efforts are paying off!
The next day, you return for another look and to revel in your newly found success. But wait, you can’t find the plant; maybe my mental location is off. But alas, it is not. You find the bottom half of the plant; the top half is gone. You notice the point of severance is jagged, not a clean cut, and you find hoof marks in the ground. Deeeeeeer!
For those of us involved in ecological restoration, deer can be a real menace. Our restoration efforts create ideal habitat for them. Removing invasive species and returning fire to the land allow for a diverse set of native species to return. Fire allows plants to green up earlier in the year; a wonderful salad bowl for deer. Fire also stimulates oak regeneration - another terrific smorgasbord for deer during the winter browsing season. The combination of fire and careful invasive species control allow for a rich diversity of native species that continually send up flowers from snowmelt to well past first frost; a never ending deer salad bowl replenished on a daily basis! Combine this with neighboring lands so choked with invasive species that are little value as food to deer, it's no wonder why us restoration practitioners have a deer problem.
But it’s not the deer’s fault. They are only being deer. It must be deer heaven to discover one day a rich diversity of ancestral foods that have not been seen for many deer generations! And, at least in southern Wisconsin, most of their ancestral predators are absent or present in small numbers.
What do we do? It’s not an easy answer. Some turn to hunting; humans hunting deer during state controlled hunting seasons. While it can reduce deer numbers in the regional area, there can also be problems. Some of the big ones are hunters tracking in invasive species' seeds on their boots, clothing and equipment. Other problems include loss of privacy, property damage such as tire-rutted fields and treestand damage to trees. And lastly, it often does not work. Deer from surrounding areas simply replace the deer harvested by hunters on the restored site. Another common method of preventing deer damage is installing barriers. This can work well but is labor intensive, and the material cost adds up quickly. But caging in desirable plants to protect from deer does work as long as the practitioner considers all of the plant’s life-cycle needs. For example, we would not want to cage out pollinators. And developing cages is typically an evolutionary process. The first prototypes don’t work. Rounds of revision occur and finally we succeed in keeping the deer out only to discover there are smaller grazers living in our restoration that have no problem fitting through the holes in our cages – but this is another story! And finally, there are more deer control methods such as stinky sprays, bad-tasting sprays, noise makers, voodoo curses and so on.
Okay fellow restoration practitioners, do you love or hate deer? I suspect most are like me. I can’t imagine not having them on my property, love watching them live out their life cycles, and feel a sense of completeness knowing I share my “home” with them. But, I wish they would compromise a little my way and consider laying off those rare plants until they have had time to recover and develop into a sustainable population!