A Walk in the Woods - The Caledonian-Record - St. Johnsbury, VT
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home : features : science and nature February 6, 2016

A Walk in the Woods

Throughout my days as the Grafton County Extension Forester I get the pleasure of walking on an amazing diversity of private woodlands. Generally speaking, north and east Grafton County are dominated by rocky soil covered by spruce, balsam fir and northern hardwoods with a mix of pine and oak. The forests and farms of the Connecticut River Valley on the other hand have better soil and are dominated by oak, pine and hemlock.

Walking this complex array of land also gives me a chance to witness a lot of different wildlife. Wildlife varieties and their population densities differ greatly in Grafton County depending on location. The most dramatic differences I see are in the densities of deer in different regions of the county. In the north and east and into Coos and Carroll counties, deer densities are healthy, but thin. Head into the farmlands of the river valley and the western towns and the deer densities increase dramatically.

During my walks on private woodlands in western Grafton County I almost always see deer. Occasionally I will get very close to deer that seem completely unconcerned about my presence. This never happens to me in north and eastern Grafton where the few deer are not as used to humans.

One telltale sign of high deer densities is heavy browsing on native woody and herbaceous vegetation. In some locations in all towns along the river I have seen deer browse that is so intense that native trees and shrubs can hardly get established in the forest. This is not a healthy situation and often leads to limited vegetation diversity and a heavy concentration of invasive plants, which the deer do not eat. In these locations deer can also do a lot of damage to cropland by eating what farmers work hard to grow.

Deer are incredibly adaptable animals. One major element of their adaptability is their reproduction rates. A mature doe almost always carries twin fawns. The idea is that sometime between late winter and mid-summer, one of the fawns won't survive, but the other fawn will, maintaining the population. During good years, both fawns do survive creating a population boom. That's three deer for a single doe that you see!

Another population strategy is the variety of foods that deer eat. Research has shown that deer eat nearly 70 varieties of food, including farm crops. Starvation is almost never an issue for deer except during harsh winters and when population densities get too high.

The management of our deer herd is a complex social issue that involves an interesting combination of biology, tradition, social science, opinions and emotions. This is a tough mix and I don't envy the state Fish and Game Departments for the fine job they do managing this animal. Consider the following hypothetical statement: "we are going to increase the number of does harvested in this state during hunting season to reduce overall deer densities." Make this statement to a hunter and an anti-hunter and you are very likely to get two very opposing and sometimes angry reactions. Make this statement to a farmer or a forester and you will get another reaction. Tell that same group that we are going to increase the number of deer in this state by decreasing the doe harvest and see what reaction is given! All wildlife is a public trust and that is how it is managed, we all have some control.

New Hampshire's forests are very diverse, with dramatic differences in population densities of deer as you travel north, south, east and west. The answer to managing our deer herd is not a simple answer, but we all get some opportunity to be part of this discussion.

David Falkenham is a UNH Cooperative Extension Grafton County Forester.

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