Many of us are familiar with the term “agriculture.” Agriculture, according to Wikipedia, “is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for food, fiber, biofuel, medicinal and other products used to sustain and enhance human life.”
Since 1978, another way of managing land has come into fruition too. According to founder Bill Mollison, "Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”
In the forest setting, we have forestry. “Forestry is the science, art, and craft of creating, managing, using, conserving, and repairing forests and associated resources, in a sustainable manner, to meet desired goals, needs, and values for human benefit.”
Both agriculture and forestry share goals that meet mainly human desires. Permaculture, on the other hand, seeks to meet human-based goals while considering the entire ecosystem. There is plenty of overlap between these approaches, and their definitions can be highly subjective, but a general understanding can be reached.
Perhaps a new subset of these management systems could be Deerculture (You can insert your own term if you’d like). I just made this term up – as far as I know – since I know no other way to stress the importance of deer management. You might be thinking, “Isn’t deerculture too specific?” But is it? Deer are a keystone species throughout the eastern temperate forests of North America. I would argue that agriculture, forestry, and permaculture have all been compromised by the mismanagement of the white-tailed deer. Conservationist Aldo Leopold once said, “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” Deer are voracious eaters. One of them can eat 4 to 6 pounds of buds per day or between 1,460 and 2,190 pounds of vegetation annually. That adds up to a lot less vegetables; hay; apples; nut trees; timber trees; maple sugaring trees; mushrooms; ginseng; nectaries for bees; forest regeneration for biodiversity; regeneration for water quality and sediment control; cover for rabbits and songbirds, foxes, bears, grouse; landscape plantings; etc. No other species affects the forest understory – and the future forest – more than the white-tailed deer; except human beings that is.
Our relationship with deer is not new; it spans thousands of years. Humans have been the primary predator of deer for a long time. Refuse pit-sites uncovered by archaeologists throughout the eastern US have found deer bones at historically known Native American settlements quite abundantly. We can debate how balanced and abundant the deer herd was during the Native American’s dominance in North America. However, it is well documented that many natives burned the forest in order to enhance young growth which fostered both fruit and nut trees, but also cover for the white-tailed deer. In order to illustrate this historical relationship, one author – who I cannot remember – remarked about the color of a deer’s coat. It blends into brushy areas and the forest edge. The deer’s color may be no accident, but an adaptation to thousands of years of human habitat manipulation. In other words, by satiating the forests chief ruminant (deer), the forest was able to grow beyond the reach of deer, and provide benefits for other wildlife and humans alike; a keystone solution to a keystone problem.
Let’s rewrite this scenario in a more familiar agricultural way. A pasture that has too many cows will be grazed down to dirt, offering diminishing returns to the farmer; a truly unsustainable practice. Such a practice wouldn’t be good farming and certainly not “permanent agriculture.” The farmer is left with two options: (1) He could provide more pasture to feed his cows; or (2) Have fewer cows so that his pasture can recover. The goal is to match enough pasturage with the number of cows. If he balances the two correctly, then both pasture and cows will prosper; offering more benefits into the future – milk, beef, cheese, etc.
Quality Habitat is Key
Deerculture seeks the same balance into the future, but on both field and forest. We have a certain amount of deer in the Catskills and Hudson Valley that in some areas seems too high. However, there may simply be a lack of quality habitats to support them, rather than too many deer. Either deer must be reduced, or quality habitat must be enhanced, just as the farmer’s dilemma in his pasture. So what to do? Well, we could treat deer as a pest, and simply kill them all. I don’t agree, but let’s run with that for a moment. First, deer are owned by the government (NYS DEC). Sure they claim it’s “in trust” but they are charged with their management. Second, even if the NYS DEC wanted to severely reduce the herd, they do not possess the man-power to do so directly and therefore must rely upon recreational hunting or hired sharpshooters. Yes – believe it or not – some municipalities are turning to sharpshooters. However, even if deer numbers are somewhat controlled, we’re still leaving out a large piece of the pie. NYS DEC may own the deer nibbling on your tomatoes and apple trees, but you own the land and access to them. You hold the most precious key to this keystone species – the land and how it’s managed. You own that “pasture” or back five or ten acres of woods. You own the habitat. So, how is your habitat serving those woodland goats anyway? We’ll get there.
Wildlife management has done a good job at monitoring populations and setting harvesting limits thus far. Where wildlife management has failed is in managing the habitat. The number of deer is important, but the quality of habitat dictates how many deer the environment can hold or its carrying capacity. Habitat is what brought the deer back in the 20th century after farm abandonment. Farms failed, the forest grew back and so did the deer in turn. Sure, there were some game laws attached to this regrowth, but the young forest that grew in provided the best salad bar buffet deer have yet seen in the last 150 years; and it was merely accidental.
The accidental forest regrowth has now matured. Shade has set into the forest understory offering less for deer to eat. Many people prefer park-like forests and this is understandable; the forests’ cathedral-like foliated ceiling is mesmerizing, while it’s easy to walk through too. However, as our addiction to mature forest spreads, the white-tailed deer’s stomach groans, creating barren deerscapes rippling through forests, backyards, farms, and gardens.
We believe the lack of habitat management has led to severe deer impacts today. We need to get back into our woods and provide some sunlight into the forest understory. We need to provide cover and more browse for deer in order to remediate impacts outside the woods. We need to cut some trees to save others; both vegetative and animal. We need to also have a discussion about other potential solutions to this deer issue; its effects are widespread upon rural land uses. What about densely populated areas where deerculture and recreational hunting seems impossible? Perhaps selling venison should be legalized instead of importing it from New Zealand. Perhaps hunting rules and regulations should be further liberalized. Maybe landowners need more incentives to enhance wildlife habitat. We will be discussing these topics at this year’s event: The Growing Deer Debate, held October 31st at Margaretville Central School, Delaware County. For more information on attending this event, please contact CFA @ 845-586-3054.
You may not be able to control your neighbor’s deer, but in the mean-time you can at least improve your forested habitat for wildlife today by taking advantage of CFA’s Forestry for Wildlife program. We’ll try and overwhelm that deer belly just yet.
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