Leopold Shack in the fall

Let’s face it. There is a lot going on in the world and our country right now. But our blog is about deer. Something that is not very important in the grand scheme of things. 

But I read something recently that sparked a thought and touched a nerve. There is a grand untruth we are taught to believe, and it is this: if our actions cannot single-handedly change something, then it is not worth acting at all. Indeed, how many times have I heard this phrase uttered, “Why bother, it won’t change anything.”

I’m not a fan of this falsehood much to the chagrin of others at times. What difference does it make if I throw this one plastic bottle in the trash instead of the recycle bin? Why stop and move that turtle safely across the road? Yes, I have dug bottles and cans out of the trash and stopped more than once to usher a box turtle across the road. Does it make a difference? It does to me and that turtle!

As a biologist who focuses on the management of a population, I spend much of my time looking at the forest rather than individual trees. Can the harvest of a single deer by a hunter change the character of a population? Not by much. But the single actions of many can. This is how management works. This is how single actions add up to change. 

Once upon a time in Pennsylvania, deer were nearly extirpated from the state. It took about 300 years for colonization to do that. It only took about 30 years to bring them back. There was a shift in the collective hunter mentality and wildlife management policy over that period. It spawned the birth of state wildlife agencies, federal legislation, and the establishment of USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units. These things did not happen overnight and were not the result of one person. It was the tide of the collective that transformed wildlife management. It laid the groundwork for the research we do today. 

The Deer-Forest Study while a large and long-term research project will not single-handedly change the way we manage forests or deer. If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you know how complex deer, forests, soil chemistry, and the interactions among them can be. However, we are not discouraged in our quest to understand and, where we can, improve. 

buckthorn on Diefenbach homestead
It looks like crabapple, but it’s not! Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) spreads its seeds by enticing birds to eat the fruit but unripe fruit causes them to vomit (a ‘cathartic’ is a purgative drug). Identify buckthorn by the thorn at the end of the twig – that’s not a crabapple!

Every year Duane has his own private crusade against autumn olive, multiflora rose, and buckthorn (to name a few!) on his small piece of heaven. Does removing invasive species from 27 acres on a landscape that harbors multitudes of invasives make a difference? 

Aldo Leopold's chair at the Shack
Aldo Leopold’s chair
at The Shack

I’d bet my bank account Aldo Leopold’s answer would be a resounding YES! He and his family toiled away on a 264 acre “worn out farm” planting more than 40,000 trees. In the early years, Dust Bowl conditions caused more than 95% of those planted to die. Was it worth it? If you’ve ever visited that “worn out farm” in Baraboo, WI as I have, the answer is clear. The actions of the individual matter. 

Do not subscribe to the myth that our individual actions can’t amount to change. That myth fuels complacency…and the status quo.  

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across waters to create many ripples.”

Mother Teresa

I will continue to act “alone” digging in trash cans and stopping on the shoulder of the road regardless of an “insignificant” outcome. Who knows how many others are causing ripples? All those ripples can create a powerful wave. 

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section

Addendum, June 10, 2020:
As if on cue, I found this lovely on my morning walk. She was alert and on the move. It was only a dirt road so I gave her a slight assist. Her shell was a bit misshapen, a reminder of a past injury…or victory! More ripples 🙂

box turtle on dirt road
Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
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