Forest Landowners — July/August 2014
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This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is Deerland
Pete Williams

Al Cambronne’s book examines America’s hunt for ecological balance, the essence of wildness, and the growth of the ‘deer-industrial complex’

Like many people writer Al Cambronne is fascinated by deer. He marvels at how Americans spend big money to hunt deer, live near deer, and repair automobiles damaged by deer. He also wondered how suburban sprawl and the number of deer – 30 million, a hundred times more than a century ago – have impacted ecosystems and forestland.

For his book Deerland, Cambronne interviewed dozens of botanists, ecologists, frustrated farmers and foresters, overworked body-shop owners, hunters, and deer enthusiasts. He gives readers an insider’s tour of what he calls America’s “deer-industrial complex,” examining our history with whitetails, pinpoints where our ecological problems began, and asks tough questions about what it will take to restore the balance we’ve disrupted.

Forest landowners, Cambronne points out, have a love-hate relationship with deer. Landowners often enjoy hunting deer, generating hunt club revenue, or just spotting deer around their property. The presence of deer can boost the value of land. On the other hand deer are the goats of the forest. They have vast appetites, devour new saplings, and make replanting a challenge. Deer reduce the total density of plants in the understory, but they also alter species composition and diversity.

As Cambronne writes about the conflict between foresters and deer: “A forester’s job is to plant seedlings and grow more trees. A deer’s job is to eat seedlings and make more deer. Some days the deer win; some days the foresters win. The deer are hungry, but hungry foresters need their paychecks too – paychecks that depend on revenue from timber sales, which in the long run depends on new seedlings growing up to replace trees that have been harvested.”

Cambronne chronicles how foresters go to extreme measures to protect trees, painstakingly stapling or “bud capping” thousands of scraps of paper to the tips of seedlings to keep deer from eating the buds off every seedling.

Each of America’s 30 million deer, Cambronne writes, eats about 3,000 pounds of vegetation a year. Some they nibble out of forests. “Most of us, even if we spend a fair amount of time in the woods, have never once seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer,” Cambronne writes. “A forest shaped by deer has a clear browse line, with nothing green below the height a deer can reach. Browse lines make our woods look parklike and manicured— lovely, but not how woods would grow if they weren’t being overrun by deer.”

Cambronne, who took up hunting later in life, lays out the facts while making no judgment about deer. He lives in Douglas County, Wisconsin, which generates between three million to four million dollars through timber sales through a county forest of 273,000 acres. In the book he quotes Douglas County forester Craig Golembiewski, who manages 73,000 acres of forest for recreation, wildlife, and a sustainable yield of timber.

“Deer really love freshly planted nursery stock,” Golembiewski says. “They’ll browse on it preferentially, over anything else that’s growing out here. I’ve seen places where deer went right down the row and took a bite out of every single seedling. Some survived, and some didn’t.”

Cambronne notes that deer are able to zero in on transplanted seedlings that have been carefully watered and fertilized back at the nursery. These seedlings are measurably more nutritious and higher in protein, and deer can tell the difference without lab equipment.

Deerland also details the size of the deer industry. In 2011, 13.7 million Americans went hunting, spending a combined $34 billion on equipment, licenses, and other expenditures. A full 11.6 million of them (85 percent) were hunting big game – mostly deer.

“In much of America, deer are now the number-one driver of the rural real estate market,” Cambronne writes. “It’s simple really. More deer and bigger bucks mean happy hunters spending bigger bucks. So in a way, what’s good for deer is good for America. Mostly.”

Forest Landowner recently spoke to Cambronne about Deerland and the issues that impact landowners and people involved in the forest industry.

Q: What inspired you to write Deerland?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by deer. I realized how there are people fascinated by deer to the point of obsession and I got pulled into that. The more I learned about the environmental and forestry angles, the more curious I became. I felt the big story in deer was not being told. The complete environmental angle needs to be told. It is possible to have too many deer and that ripples through the entire ecosystem.

Q: Why are too many deer bad for the forest?

A: The simplest way to describe it is that deer eat themselves out of house and home, for themselves and for other animals and birds. If you go out in the woods where there are too many deer, even if you’re not a botanist, you can look down and see no understory. You look up and see a browse line and for comparison purposes, foresters use these exclosures and you can see this dramatic contrast when deer are fenced out; it looks different from the adjacent forest. The impact of too many deer ripples through ecosystems and affects every plant and bird out there. First it starts with plants on the forest floor; they’re gone. When that happens it affects small mammals and ground-nesting birds. Pretty soon with no saplings growing up, the midstory is gone and then all you have is trees and canopy and when they’re gone, there’s no new growth to replace it. It might look fine, but it’s not healthy. Another part of this is that most of us, if we spend some time in the woods, we’ve never seen a forest not shaped by deer; we don’t know what we’re missing. We almost seem hardwired to prefer that (clear) look of the forest and maybe it’s left over from the time when that clear visibility kept us safe from saber-tooth tigers. We like our lawns and parks and cemeteries looking like that and if there’s an area with too many deer, people think it looks good. People say it’s so beautiful, open and park like and looks good but that’s not the case. Some people have a hard time being convinced about this. I’ve talked to people who say, “I don’t care about wildflowers. I want to see more deer.” Those people are hard to convince. You can ask them if they like to hunt turkey and grouse. You won’t see many of them if you have too many deer. You’re marking tradeoffs. If you want more deer, you will have less of something else.

Q: What are the telltale signs of a forest with too many deer?

A: Look down and see what there is on the ground. Do you have much of an understory? Look around. Can you see your way through the woods? Can you see a half-mile through trees if it’s flat or is there thick brush? It might be tough to walk through, but that’s a good thing. Look up. See if there’s a browse line. It marks the highest point that a deer can reach and nibble off branches. If they’re really hungry, it might be the highest point on their hind legs. If that browse line is sharp and distinct, that means you’re really in trouble. If it’s softer and less distinct but you can still see a horizontal line, that’s a bad sign, too. You can look specifically for seedlings and saplings and what kind of regeneration you’re getting. It’s at that stage where they’re most vulnerable. If you’re not seeing any seedlings more than a couple inches high, then you’re got trouble. If you’re a new owner of forestland, get expert advice. Deer are preferential browsers. Plants they don’t like will grow better than others.

Q: So what’s the answer?

A: It can be tough and there are certain stages where deer can have the most influence, like where there’s a transition from fire and storm and logging and when you plant those next trees. When trees are larger and taller, they’re safe from deer. If you’re not concerned with birds and ecosystem and just want to grow trees, it’s not a problem except at the seedling and sapling stage. We have some areas in my area of Northern Wisconsin where those pine plantations look like rows of corn. It’s like farming and we’re not so worried about the ecosystem that might not exist within those rows. But even then, when you log off a patch of woods and plant new seedlings, deer will be an issue.

Q: You didn’t take up hunting until your mid-forties. Is that becoming more common because of America’s obsession with deer?

A: It is. Traditionally you would have had to have been born into a hunting family but the “adult onset hunter” is becoming more common now. Maybe people who start hunting later in life have a different perspective on these issues. It seems more people are becoming open minded about hunting. There are always going to be those against it who think hunting is evil, but more people are becoming aware of the important role that hunting plays.

Q: Some forest landowners take what was a staging area for hauling timber and turn it into a food plot. Good thing or bad thing?

A: It might not harm the broader ecosystem by having a food plot here and there. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and maybe that’s going to benefit wildlife and deer, which do like openings and edges rather than unbroken forestland. I tried not to be judgmental (in the book), but I did raise some issues of the privatization of what should be a public resource. That’s the pitch: attract deer and keep them on your land. And I quoted an outdoor writer from New York who asked the deeper question of what hunting means. Do food plots take the wild out of hunting? When do these deer seem less like wild animals improving habitat and more like livestock you’re feeding to ultimately harvest? It was fun to talk with people in the industry; they spoke positively about it, of course. It might be a positive experience for people. It’s given some of these people a whole new hobby – raising food plots, becoming amateur farmers. One mentioned that the food plot farming experience appealed more to those who hadn’t grown up in a farm.

Q: How have deer impacted real estate values?

A: It varies, but we saw a five-year stretch in Buffalo County (Wisconsin) where real estate values of (hunting property) increased fivefold because of the trophy hunting scene. We’ve seen this to a lesser degree in some areas of the Southeast where deer leases and trophy hunting are big. It would be a stretch to say this is the biggest driver of the real estate market, but there are pockets where that is true. Take out lakeshore and mountain properties, some of the most expensive land gets sold to hunters. Even those who aren’t rich are willing to spend on land used mostly to hunt deer.

Q: What’s the future of America and deer?

A: Hunters are doing a good job at keeping deer in check. I’ve heard some stories from various states that deer numbers are down all over the country and that’s due to a variety of factors, including hunting. Out on the larger landscape, we have no worries. There are four-legged predators (wolves, bears, coyotes), and human hunters, but once we get to a more developed landscape in cities and suburbs, it’s going to be more of an issue. Our suburbs are sprawling further, creating this habitat that’s perfect for deer. The number of hunters long-term seems to be going down, though there’s been a recent short-term bump. There are a lot of suburbs that have hired sharpshooters. Deer birth control is not effective or the answer. So while there are people who are going to feel uncomfortable about harming one deer, it’s a problem to have too many hungry deer roaming around. Standing back and letting nature take its course is not the answer. There just are no easy answers to the suburban problem.