The patchwork of woodlands and farm fields in southern Wisconsin can support more than 100 deer per square mile – but drivers and farmers won”t support that many deer. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates deer abundance by balancing the public”s tolerance for deer-vehicle collisions and farmers” tolerance to crop damage against hunters” desire for abundant deer and the public”s desire to see deer. Private woodland owners control access to and manage most wooded deer habitat in Wisconsin, making them “game managers” for much of the state”s deer herd. We surveyed 500 woodland owners in Sauk and Columbia counties to find out what they thought about whitetails and their feeding activities.
Deer Feeding Impacts and Observations
More than 60 percent of the participants had seen changes on their property caused by deer. More than half had observed browsed tree seedlings on their properties, and about half had observed herbaceous plants browsed recently.
More than a third of the those who had seen changes had tried at least one method – usually hunting – to reduce those changes. Seedling protectors were the second most commonly used method. A few people tried fencing, soap, commercial repellents, and moth balls.
Hunting was chosen as the most effective method in reducing impacts (64 percent). Almost a fifth of the respondents indicated that no methods used had been effective. A few felt that fencing was most effective. Though one-quarter of the respondents had used seedling protectors, less than 3 percent felt that this was the best way to decrease deer damage.
Almost all (more than 93 percent) of the participants allowed deer hunting on their properties, and two-thirds were deer hunters themselves. A small fraction (12 percent) allowed people other than neighbors, relatives or friends to hunt. Most people posted their land.
Respondents were split on how they would like to see deer numbers change in their area. One-third wanted deer numbers to stay the same and one-third wanted numbers to increase. Four percent did not know what kind of change they wanted to see, and 28 percent wanted fewer deer.
Vegetative Changes and their Causes
Less than 5 percent of the participants could identify all the wildflowers or shrubs on their properties, but more than a quarter were able to identify all the tree seedlings. Of course, there are a lot more wildflowers and shrubs to learn – probably ten times the number of tree species!
Most respondents felt able to evaluate changes in the numbers of plants on their property. Parcels had been owned an average of 18 years, but there was a lot of variability. About half the participants felt that wildflower, shrub and tree seedling variety and abundance had stayed about the same since owning their parcel. About a quarter felt that wildflower variety and abundance had increased, and a third noted an increase in shrub and tree seedling variety and abundance. Less than 10 percent of our respondents noted a decrease in any of the plant groups.
The most common reason cited for declines in wildflowers and shrubs was shading out by trees. (In unlogged woods, this natural succession proceeds unless the forest is disturbed by fires or blowdowns. With no disturbance, the forest eventually grows up from an oak woods into a shadier, maple-dominated woods.) Deer feeding was identified as the major cause of tree seedling losses, and the second most commonly cited cause for wildflower and shrub losses.
Less than half of our participants had increased the types of plants on their properties through management. Of these, almost all reported planting tree seedlings, and about a quarter planted wildflowers or shrubs. Less than 15 percent managed for wildflowers or shrubs, but 37 percent managed for tree seedlings, usually through tree thinning and seedling planting.
The health of the deer herd was considered important by more than 80 percent of the participants. Less than a quarter felt that protecting deer from hunting was important. The issues that were split the most evenly were agricultural crop damage and disease considerations, which were considered important by a little more than half of the participants.
Crop damage was considered important by more people who derived more than 40 percent of their net income from their property (70 percent vs. 54 percent). Ecological impacts were considered important by a larger portion of the landowners who received less than 40 percent of their income from their property (40 percent vs. 22 percent). Lastly, the fitness of the deer herd was considered not important by more landowners who derived more than 40 percent of their net income from their property (31 percent vs. 16 percent).
Our results indicate that most woodland owners are managing deer on their property with hunting, and that the health of the deer herd is important to this group. The average parcel size of our participants was about 50 acres, far smaller than the average home range for a whitetail, which is about 190 to 440 acres in south-central Wisconsin. Maintaining and improving the health of the deer herd may best be accomplished by cooperative groups of landowners managing deer on a scale
larger than their individual properties. Quality deer management groups have been increasing in south-central Wisconsin and this growth will probably continue, as private landowners strive to improve deer management on their properties. It is also important to remember that for landowners who obtain more than 40 percent of their net income from their property, deer-vehicle collisions and crop damage are also important concerns.
High knowledge and interest in tree seedlings probably reflects the economic value of these plants. Programs such as the Managed Forest Law provide incentives to landowners to plant trees. Such programs do not encourage landowners to manage for wildflowers and shrubs. Once landowners realize how other organisms depend on wildflowers and shrubs for food, shelter, and nest sites, perhaps they will focus more on their management and learn more about these plants. After all, forests are not made up of trees alone!
EDITOR”S NOTE: This story is based on research by Rebecca Christoffel, who recently completed her Ph.D. work in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. A longer version of this story first appeared in Woodland Management (Volume 19, No. 3, Fall 1998), published by the Wisconsin Woodlot Owners Association.