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Deer and Our Forestsl
Article #132, June2008
By Bill Cook

     The politics of Michigan deer management have always been controversial, sometimes heated, occasionally even hostile. The mystique surrounding white-tailed deer reaches religious proportions among many folks.

     All deer hunters, naturally, look forward to this traditional time, deeply ingrained into Michigan outdoor culture. Some hunters hold the annual November ritual as a holy pilgrimage.

      Deer also attract other strong proponents. Tourists love to see the animals, especially the moment when a youngster sees their first deer. People feed them, watch them, and manage forests for their benefit. With little doubt, they are the most revered wildlife species in the state.

     So, what happens when the poster-child of all that is good with nature becomes an ecological threat? It's not difficult to imagine the clash of values and ideals.

     Deer browsing causes millions of dollars of damage to gardens, shrubs, and the plant industry. Farmers claim crop losses. Body shops rake in the revenue from increased car-deer collisions. Deer have long prevented trees from adequately regenerating in much of our forests. They have spread diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and Lyme disease. Overbrowsing diminishes habitat for endangered species, wildflowers, songbirds, and other wildlife. They contribute to the success of invasive plants.

     Michigan is experiencing a growing frustration among many folks about the negative impacts that deer have on our properties and to ecological conditions in many places.

     Michigan has done little to assess the impact of deer in the natural landscapes. Biologists use well-grounded, science-based methods to determine the size and condition of the deer herd, but very little is done to assess the habitat impacts, especially in the vulnerable habitats. The size of the herd is one question. The more important question, ecologically, involves the impact of those deer. Science cannot fully answer that question on a statewide basis. However, much research exists on site-specific locations and on certain aspects of forest ecology. But that's not enough to convince the opposition or risk policy changes.

     Given the lack of rather costly statewide vegetation inventory data, the Michigan Society of American Foresters (MSAF) polled their membership about perceptions of the deer impacts on forests. Collectively, those opinions were derived from nearly 400 years of trained professional field experience during the five years from 2003 to 2007. Foresters across the state are witnessing some scary things done by deer to our forests.

     The overwhelming opinion among MSAF foresters is that deer depredation is a serious issue in many areas of the state, has been a serious issue for a long time, and will not likely change within the next decade. This may not sit well with some of the strong advocates for as many deer as possible. But it's the closest thing we have to a statewide assessment. And it's the opinion from folks who know what to look for.

     If you're interested in reading the report, it can be found on the MSAF website [http://michigansaf.org]. Look for the link on the home page.

     Of course, science and professional opinion seldom rule the day. The debate about deer and deer impacts will remain in the political and social arenas. In the meantime, hundreds of foresters quietly go about their business, watching the forests, and working towards a bright future. They're a hopeful and idealistic bunch.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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