Where Deer Fear To Tread - Or Just Plain Can't (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Where Deer Fear to Tread - or Just Plain Can't

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:48:30
We all know it. Aging is an inevitable part of life. But what happens when you age and there's no one following in your footsteps to take your place? It's not just a question we humans have to face. It also happens in nature.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:48:44
And it's a big question when it comes to our local forests, which are unable to replenish themselves to nurture the next generation because of a simple problem, too many deer. Environmental reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, went to a very special place, a place where no deer have trod for decades to get a closer look.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

13:49:05
We know what deer do to cars. We know what they do to gardens but in Front Row, Virginia, at the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute, scientists wanted to know just what are deer doing to forests. So back in 1990, they closed off about 10 acres inside an eight-foot tall wire fence.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

13:49:22
It's called an exclosure. It's a world without deer and it doesn't really exist anymore anywhere else. Bill McShay is a wildlife ecologist at SCBI and after passing through a rickety wire door, he's standing in that world.

MR. BILL MCSHAY

13:49:37
So here we're inside this deer exclosure, we're at the fence line here and this fence has been up now for 21 years. so we're comparing inside the fence to the outside the fence. And there's two things of notice. One is, it's green on both sides of the fence but in here it's a lot more diverse than out there.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:49:54
That is an understatement. The deer side of the fence has a carpet of grass, a shrubby looking thing and some large trees. Things that are either too big for deer to eat or among the very few plants they don't like to eat. Inside is practically a jungle.

MCSHAY

13:50:09
Dozens of different almost exotic looking plants are tumbling over one another, many of them are young trees.

MCSHAY

13:50:15
In here I can see white ash and hickory and red maples and white maples and serviceberry. A whole bunch of under story and canopy trees that are all now three or four feet tall. We are looking at 20, 30 species. There's a lot of diversity in here. You look out there it's a much simpler world.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:50:36
And that simpler world is an aging world. Really, it's a dying world as far as forests go.

MCSHAY

13:50:42
The future is not good. There is no teenagers, there's no young adults. Everybody's a mature individual. Whereas, inside this fence you have the complete profile of ages. You have youngsters, you have teenagers, you have middle-aged adults, you have the old trees. And when the old trees go, as they're going to go, that's what happens with old trees. They fall over. There is something here to take its place. Out there, I don't see anything out there that's a small tree.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:51:10
Norm Borg is a plant ecologist with SCBI. He says one of the surprising things they found with this experiment is that deer allow invasive species to flourish.

MR. NORM BORG

13:51:20
The Japanese stoke grass is just coming up now as a highly invasive annual grass.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:51:24
The grass carpets the floor outside the exclosure but inside...

BORG

13:51:28
There's a lot of native species like horse balm (unintelligible) this is black cohosh, which is a Native medicinal plant that you hardly ever see out there.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:51:39
And with fewer native plants outside the exclosure there are fewer birds there that depend on them for nests and food. There are fewer mice and fewer chipmunks when they have to compete with deer. But it wasn't always this way. 100 years ago, deer were nearly extinct in Maryland and extremely rare in Virginia.

MCSHAY

13:51:55
By that time you couldn't find a deer or a turkey or a bear in the state. both the habitat changes and the restaurant trade eliminated most of those animals.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:52:04
Buying local was the norm back then and hunting was an industry says McShay.

MCSHAY

13:52:08
They weren't going to put a cow on a train in Texas and ship it to Virginia. If you were going to go to a restaurant, order yourself a steak, for the most part that was a venison steak.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:52:17
Newly minted state game departments rushed to the rescue, banning or regulating hunting and setting up parks.

MCSHAY

13:52:22
When you made the Shenandoah Park in the 1930s, they went and got deer from Arkansas and brought them back here to repopulate that area. So growing the deer population was intentional. It's a conservation story and it went just like they planned and the result is today.

MCSHAY

13:52:38
We have several million deer and now the flipside has happened. Who intended this many deer? They're hitting too many cars, there's too much gardens being eaten, the forest succession is changing. We've got to dial that back a little bit.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:52:52
Deer aren't evil, McShay is quick to emphasize but they have no predators now and they need to be managed. States currently rely primarily on managed hunts, where the public is allowed to come in and take out deer. That works well on parkland to some extent but it doesn't work on private property or in federal parks, which have been slower to adopt aggressive management.

MCSHAY

13:53:12
We have time in that, we don't have to make a decision this year.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:53:15
But he says we don't have decades. Trees don't live forever. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

13:53:22
To see for yourself what a world without deer looks like, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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