Forest Buffet: Blight of the White-Tailed Deer

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — East Coast forests are literally being eaten away, according to Thomas Rawinski of the USDA Forest Service. “I’m convinced that deer are the single greatest threat to eastern forests,” he said during his March 29 presentation at a Rhode Island History Survey conference entitled “Trends in Human-Wildlife Interaction” that was held at the Quonset ‘O’ Club.

Deer impair a forest’s ability to regenerate by attacking native species and consuming everything in sight, he said, noting that we’re seeing major shifts ecologically as deer have overwhelmed and drastically changed the landscape and culturally by how society views nature and its role within it.

“Rhode Island forests were much different 25 years ago,” Rawinski said. “I love deer, but I hate what people have allowed them to do to Rhode Island forests.”

The crux of the problem, he said, is that deer increase the economic and esthetic benefits, but also cause more harm because there are so adaptable and such a prolific prey species. “They’re adaptable and can live amongst us,” Rawinski said. “They’ve beguiled us with beauty and grace.”

White-tailed deer are selective eaters when there is an abundance of food, but as their population increases their diet shifts to low-preference species and increases impact on plants such as viburnum, pink lady slippers, wild sarsaparilla and American beech. As a result of their voracious appetite, diversity in plant species is lost and impairs a forest from regenerating.

It’s a human-caused problem that revolves around the predator control issue, Rawinski said. “We tried to gentrify nature and exclude unsavory characters,” he said, noting that hunters and other predators are seen as unsavory characters. “Nature has its own rules and deer come back with a vengeance when land is used for passive recreation.”

Rawinski’s goal is to get people concerned before there is a problem. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” he said. “People become concerned once the population has already exploded.”

The white-tailed deer population (pdf) becomes a problem when the environment is changed in a way that interferes with how it should function, causing an increase in disease and an increased risk to public health. In 2004, there were an estimated 15,800 white-tailed deer in Rhode Island, and their population is still rising, according to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).