Imagine if you NEVER saw a deer. Ever! That’s what Pennsylvania was like.  There were no deer. Or so few that if you saw one, it made the newspaper. Today you’d post it on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat.  You go to work or school and tell all your friends and coworkers. 

Did you see a deer today? Did you tell anyone about it? No? 

White-tailed deer might be our nation’s biggest conservation success story. From extirpation to the most abundant big game species on the continent. In 1890, the nationwide population estimate for white-tailed deer was 300,000. Less than last year’s statewide harvest. 

By 1890, 70% of Penn’s Woods had turned into agricultural fields. If you were to ask a patch of dirt in this state what it wants to be when it grows up, the answer would be a forest. Pennsylvania’s slice of the mid-Atlantic was born to grow trees and it is so named for this unceasing will of the land to be dressed in timber. 

Of course, over 100 years later, things are different still. Trees and deer are back but the complexion of the landscape for these giants is light years from where it began. 

Why this walk down memory lane? The Deer-Forest study is entering its 7th year. Deer and forests are soulmates but that doesn’t mean they don’t have relationship issues. Forests are the strong, dependable partner but they have many demands put on them. Invasive plants, insect and disease outbreaks, soil chemistry changes, and the sole provider to deer and a host of other wonderful species. Deer love forests but the price of that love can be high if forests are “loved” by too many. 

We have learned a lot from the Deer-Forest study much of which we have shared on this blog. But trees grow slow and there are still many questions. While it is fun and intriguing to see where and how deer move, the Deer-Forest study is so much more than that.

The objectives of the study remain the same:

  1. Test the assumption that FIA categorical deer impact levels accurately reflect the effect of deer browsing on forest conditions. Identify modifications that could improve the accuracy of monitoring programs of forest conditions in relation to deer browsing.
  2. Evaluate the effectiveness of DMAP to increase antlerless harvest in a local area.
  3. Monitor hunter behavior and attitudes in response to changes in deer abundance.
  4. Test the ability of DCNR’s Vegetation Impact Protocol to detect changes in vegetation in response to changes in deer abundance.

With so many more mouths to feed and the changing climate, our forests need to be robust and resilient. Understanding the relationship between deer and our forests will ensure we are doing the best for both. 

Those objectives listed above are how scientists communicate. But we really do get inspired by our forests. Really, we do! Take this little forest creature, the fingernail clam.

fingernail clam
Seems tinier than a fingernail! These creatures live in vernal pools (pools of water in the forest that only exist in winter and spring) and can travel from one pool to another by clamping on to the feet of salamanders, like this one.
But why would we be interested in the fate of the lowly fingernail clam and is it really important to deer? Well, clams depend on calcium to make their shell. As our forest soils have become more acidic over the past 30-50 years due to acid deposition, there is less calcium available for clams and snails. Fewer clams and snails mean that forest birds, like the ovenbird, require larger home ranges to raise young.

Similarly, less calcium in our forest soils means that tree seedlings are exposed to more aluminum (a toxic metal) and grow more slowly. In turn, their leaves and twigs contain less calcium. Deer need calcium for antler growth and lactation which means they need to eat more tree seedlings to gain those nutrients.

The Deer-Forest Study has some clear goals and objectives related to how the PGC and Bureau of Forestry make management decisions, but the real beauty of this research is discovering the inter-relationships between deer and forests so we can make the best decision for both.

-Jeannine Fleegle and Duane Diefenbach

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