Deer population prompts plan for Metroparks kills (PART 1 of 3)
Metroparks of the Toledo Area plans to kill as many as 200 white-tailed deer in Oak Openings Preserve and Swan Creek Preserve metroparks over the next three months as part of its ongoing effort to reduce ecological damage tied to an overabundance of deer in those protected areas.
Late last week, the Ohio Division of Wildlife approved the request from the Metroparks of the Toledo Area for a deer damage-control permit, thus authorizing the cull.
The permit is valid through March 31. Sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are expected to begin killing deer in the two preserves in the near future, possibly as soon as this week. Citing safety concerns, Metroparks officials do not publicize the exact dates the cull will occur.
Early in 2016, Metroparks contracted with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to have marksmen remove deer from Oak Openings and Wildwood Preserve metroparks. Over four nights, the sharpshooters removed 195 deer from the two preserves.
Thirty deer were removed from Wildwood and 165 were removed from Oak Openings. The animals were processed locally and about 6,700 pounds of venison was donated to area food pantries and homeless shelters.
Data on damage
At its December public meeting, Tim Schetter, Metroparks director of natural resources, presented the park district’s board of commissioners with extensive data on the damage that deer have done to native wildflower populations and other vegetation at Swan Creek, and the continued damage to the vital understory at Oak Openings.
Mr. Schetter said removing up to 50 deer from Swan Creek Preserve is a priority, because the damage to vegetation there is significant.
“The spring wildflower populations that were historically quite diverse there, those have really tanked over the last 20 years or so,” he said. “We based the permit request for Swan Creek on it being known for its spring trillium and other spring wildflowers, since it used to have great displays and widespread populations. But we are now seeing those populations are spotty, and there is one species of trillium that you can’t hardly find any more.”
Mr. Schetter said a recent infrared survey of the deer population at Swan Creek indicated 121 deer in the preserve, or 51 deer per square mile, which is more than double the ideal carrying capacity of the habitat.
“We are seeing a really low number of flowering examples of trillium. Deer will browse those off, and if those plants are not flowering and not reproducing, then those populations will decline,” he said. “We also have seen a number of examples at Swan Creek where there are a lot of plant species that are not highly preferred by the deer, but they are really getting hammered.”
Mr. Schetter said the deer in the parks are healthy, but he stressed that much ecological damage can occur to the habitat in the preserves before deer show signs of malnutrition.
“If we actually are starting to see physical signs of malnutrition in deer, that means we have really lost a lot of the battle,” he said. “That would be an indication of significant impacts throughout the parks.”
Numerous studies have shown that deer populations in parks and preserves can grow exponentially, because deer are free from predators which are absent from those environments, and hunting is usually not permitted in these areas. While state wildlife biologists say that deer in the wild herd in Ohio are capable of showing a 50 to 65 percent population increase from the spring before the fawns are born, up to the start of the fall hunting season, the deer population in an area that isn’t hunted can expand much more rapidly.
In a study at the University of Michigan, where six deer were introduced into a 1,100-acre fenced area at George Reserve, in just seven years the deer numbers increased to 222 animals. Ohio had just 17,000 white-tailed deer in 1970, but that population grew to more than 700,000 by 2013.
Mr. Schetter said that once the deer population in these parks and preserves grows beyond the biological and ecological carrying capacity of the existing habitat, excessive browsing by deer can bring about the degradation of that habitat and have a substantial long-term impact on native plants and animals.
That degradation continues to take place at Oak Openings, Mr. Schetter said, despite the culling effort early in 2016, and a controlled archery program that has been in place in the more remote sections of the Oak Openings Region since 2013.
“Both the infrared count done by an outside firm and the helicopter count that we did confirm that the numbers are way too high at Oak Openings,” he said. “The past cull stabilized the numbers, but it is going to take a multiyear effort to get the population down to a reasonable and manageable number.”
One of the greatest concerns at Oak Openings is the damage to rare wild lupine, which has bright blue/purple flowers and is the sole food source for the endangered Karner blue butterfly. Mr. Schetter said the deer at Oak Openings have continued to harm the lupine in the preserve.
“We’ve seen essentially no change in that. They tend to eat the lupine at the time the flowers appear, which reduces the number of seeds that allow the lupine to persist,” he said. On several fenced-off plots at Oak Openings that have protected the lupine from browsing, there were significantly more flowering stems than in the unprotected areas, Mr. Schetter added.
Research forum set
In addition to the negative impact excessive browsing can have on native plant species and communities, too many deer also can threaten the food sources and nesting areas of birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
“It is a complicated issue,” Mr. Schetter said, “and one that has certainly been a personal challenge for me to communicate to the lay person.”
Metroparks officials expect to lay out their research data on deer issues in the parks and preserves, and details on the deer management program, at a Jan. 28 research forum to be held at the McMaster Center at the downtown library. Registration for that all-day workshop will be available soon at the Metroparks website.
Originally posted by Matt Markey | BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
January 2, 2017
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.
Image courtesy The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth