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Common Cents

Species decline in Catoctin Mountains

Kai Hagen

(8/2017) A 2014 article by Ike Wilson, entitled "41-year study shows drastic orchid species decline in Catoctin Mountains," conveyed bad news about the "precipitous" decline of 19 of the 21 species of orchids that have been observed in our local mountains in recent decades.

The plight of orchids in the county received attention then because of a published study, authored by Wesley M. Knapp and Richard Wiegand, under the title "Orchid (Orchidaceae) decline in the Catoctin Mountains, as documented by a long-term dataset."

The entire study was not very long (barely eight pages). While it mentioned a few factors that could affect the population of some or all of the orchids (not to mention other plants), the key finding of the study was that "the main cause of this decline is most likely herbivory by white-tailed deer."

As valuable as the research is, the conclusion is not surprising, as it confirms the well-known fact that the unnatural overabundance of white-tailed deer has a widespread and dramatic effect on many native plants, and by extension, on native animals, and even entire ecosystems.

Among other things, the authors make the point that native plants and animals, and the overall ecosystems are not necessarily or adequately protected just because much of the land publicly owned parks and watershed areas where development isnít a threat, adding that "Proper natural resource management is a prerequisite for species survival."

This is an important point, and one to remember when we purchase and/or manage public lands to preserve natural areas. The subject is too broad to get into the weeds here and now, but besides the serious concerns about chronic over-browsing by a much too large deer population, there are, of course, other threats to the biological integrity of the habitat, such as invasive, non-native plants, insects and other animals, air pollution, certain recreational uses that fail to adequately consider the ecology of the area in their management plan, and more.

The rest of this column is an updated version of something I wrote more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, itís as relevant today as it was then. Deer are often managed as much or more for the benefit of maintaining a sizable population for hunting than primarily for the benefit of the overall ecological community of native plants and animals.

They are beautiful and graceful native creatures that belong here. But you can have too much of a good thing.

During the 2016-2017 (September through January) combined archery, muzzleloader and firearm seasons, Frederick County hunters harvested 7,556 deer. A number like that make it hard to believe there was a time when the near complete clearing of Marylandís original forest and the unrestricted killing of deer led to their elimination from all but the most remote areas of far western Maryland.

Imagine that. No deer in Frederick County.

There werenít a lot of people here then. But there werenít a lot of forests, either. And things were seriously out of balance. Today there are a lot more people in Frederick County. And, of course, for a lot of reasons, a lot more deer. Too many deer. In a different way, things are still out of balance.

Our deer population has been growing for decades, reaching about 150,000 in 1991, and roughly 250,000 a decade ago. Some projections suggest it could reach 500,000.

You donít have to be a wildlife biologist to understand how this has happened. The recipe weíve used for cooking up a landscape to suit our needs and desires contains all the ingredients necessary to support far more deer than nature intended.

Most significantly, our suburban neighborhoods, pastoral farmland, woodlots and fragmented forests do not support either solitary mountain lions or packs of wolves. More than anything else, these predators kept the deer population in check, maintaining a healthy balance for millennia.

As if removing the large predators wasnít enough, weíve also been kind enough to provide ample cover and an abundance of nutritious food. Deer may be fearful and skittish creatures, but the benefits of living near people clearly outweigh the drawbacks.

Deer are graceful and beautiful animals. But without a more effective way to reduce the population, however, they are increasingly viewed as unwelcome pests.

The burgeoning deer population is having a growing impact on the people of Maryland. Vehicle collisions numbers in the tens of thousands. Farmers experience significant crop damage. Orchard and nursery owners constantly battle to reduce damage from browsing and rubbing. Homeowners are experiencing damage to their vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and landscape plantings. Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks found on deer, is a serious concern.

Any one or two of those problems is enough to convince many people that we have to do more to reduce the number of deer.

For some, the most convincing reason to take more aggressive action is that our seriously out of balance deer population is having a disastrous effect on the health and diversity of our remaining forests and other ecosystems. Hungry deer are eating the food and shelter that a great many other animals depend on.

Too many deer means greatly impoverished forests and reduced biological diversity. Our native orchids are just one of many canaries in our metaphorical coal mine.

We created this problem, and itís our responsibility to deal with it. There are many serious problems affecting our environment that have nothing to do with deer, of course. But reducing the number of deer is one solution we canít afford to ignore. Without natural predators, well regulated hunting is the only realistic way to achieve this goal in many areas.

As population growth and suburban sprawl continue to make hunting impractical or impossible in many areas, other measures may be required. There are other options available, such as relocation, contraception, repellants, and fencing, but they are all much more costly and generally less efficient.

In contrast, hunters pay for the privilege of hunting and trapping by purchasing licenses from the state and federal government. The use of hunters and trappers to harvest animals is often the most cost-effective way to manage wildlife populations. Spending substantial tax dollars to do the job less effectively doesnít make much sense.

Unfortunately, some land management practices and hunting regulations have contributed to our deer problem, prioritizing the maintenance of an unnaturally high population for the benefit of hunters. When hunters are allowed, even encouraged, to take more does, for example, and hunting seasons are expanded, it probably isnít enough. But itís a start.

Read past editions of Common Cents by Kai Hagen