Land Manager John Dzemyan is a man with a mission. He wants every hunter in Pennsylvania to see his 150 deer exclosures on state gamelands in McKean and Elk counties. Only then will they understand the terrific damage an overabundant deer herd does to the forest, a forest that sustains not only deer but bear, grouse, turkey, songbirds, and a host of other wild creatures.
Dzemyan became a proselytizer earlier in his career when he was a WCO in southeastern McKean County. There he first saw the last remaining Latham fence on SGL #30. One of many built by Stan Forbes and Roger Latham back in 1949, it encloses one acre of rugged, mountaintop forest. For 50 years, all deer have been kept out of that acre, hence the term exclosure. Dzemyan could scarcely believe the difference between Latham’s acre, as it was called, and the surrounding forest.
Neither could we. My husband Bruce and I stood on top of Dividing Ridge on a cool day in mid-May. The only sound we heard atop that remote mountain was the song of a black-throated green warbler. At 2300 feet in north central Pennsylvania’s big woods, we were not surprised by the forest understory of hay-scented ferns, striped maples, and a few white violets. Even though it was the peak of spring wildflowers, we were used to seeing the greatest number and diversity of wildflowers and shrubs in lower, wet areas in Pennsylvania, including along our own hollow stream. Mountaintops don’t grow many wildflowers, we thought.
Then we entered Latham’s acre. It was like stepping into a lost world, a world filled with wildflowers, shrubs, and saplings only rarely seen in much of Pennsylvania’s wild lands. Thick beds of Canada mayflower, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violets, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber-root, white baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red and painted trilliums blanketed the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood and red elderberry shrubs, as well as tree saplings of many species, such as black birch, sugar maple, shadbush, black cherry, and American beech, occupied the understory. The vegetation was so thick that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other. The middle canopy, which has been eliminated from many of Pennsylvania’s forests by too many deer, was especially impressive. That is the area, researchers have found, where most of our neotropical migrant songbirds, such as wood thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and black-throated blue warblers, nest and feed.
From there, Dzemyan took us to a nearby small, narrow fence eight feet long and four feet high which he had built to save multiflora rose and autumn olive plantings from death by deer. I was aghast. In many parts of Pennsylvania, these alien species, once planted as wildlife food, have become rampant pests, crowding out native plants, and folks are using herbicides to get rid of them. But in north central Pennsylvania, even the aliens can’t make it.
To reinforce the impression made by those fences, Dzemyan took us to visit several more exclosures he had had built on SGL #44 in Elk County. Using the labor of Pennsylvania’s Conservation Corps, under the auspices of Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry, he has had all shapes and sizes of fences erected.
“I just randomly pick spots,” he told us. And each time he seems to get a different mix of trees, shrubs and wildflowers, clear evidence of the former diversity in these forests.
Half of one fenced clearcut came back to aspen because it grows so fast. Since it is relished by deer, it rarely has a chance to regenerate in an unfenced area. Inside another small fence, a wild azalea shrub and white oak sapling appeared. The wild azalea surprised Dzemyan, but he subsequently found them inside other fences.
“I didn’t know they grew around here,” he said.
Pin cherry, a first successional tree, came up quickly and thickly in other exclosures, preventing a hay-scented fern monoculture from covering the forest floor, as it does in many places after a clearcut, and shading out tree seedlings.
On a steep slope he had had fenced, he proudly pointed out mountain laurel, hemlocks, teaberry and partridgeberry coming back. Outside the fence the ground was bare.
“I find it hard to believe that they even eat mountain laurel, teaberry, and partridgeberry,” I commented. “Our Laurel Ridge is covered with them.”
“I tell people that deer eat everything but rocks and they will even eat those if there’s nothing else around,” Dzemyan joked.
Behind another fence he showed off wild grapevines and blackberry bushes.
“Deer have eliminated blackberry up here,” he said.
Mountain ash is also relished by deer. Dzemyan planted a large opening with them, and those he fenced covered the land. Those without protection were quickly eaten.
His favorite place to take hunters is a demonstration plot beside Pa. 949 which is complete with explanatory signboards. Anyone can stop, read the explanatory material, and then look at the area. It had been clearcut in 1989, and there had been no regeneration. So, in 1996 Dzemyan had seven 20 feet by 20 feet areas fenced. He wanted to demonstrate how much would regenerate after six years of no fencing. Then, he had another larger area cut again. He fenced that in the spring of 1997. Both areas are regenerating nicely.
Probably his most impressive demonstration area is on top of the mountain near Brockway. In 1996 half of a six acre clearcut was fenced to exclude deer; the other half was left open. Inside the fence, stump sprouts had sprung up and grown vigorously. Outside the fence the same number of sprouts were browsed to the ground. Deer love stump sprouts because they are more nutritious, having gotten their nutrients from the root system of a mature tree.
The variety of trees coming up inside the fence was amazing–several oak species, maples, cucumber magnolias, sassafras, black cherry, and shadbush, among others. Dewberry, teaberry, and partridgeberry covered the ground. We even found a few painted trilliums. Only isolated clumps of grass grew outside the exclosure.
Walking along the outside of the woven wire, eight-foot-high fence, Dzemyan pointed out an 18-inch dead zone inside the fence–as far as deer can stick their mouths in to eat!
He told us that after he shows this plot to people, “Nineteen out of twenty say that every deer hunter in the state should come here.” Dzemyan, himself, is an avid deer hunter and his message to hunters is that poor habitat cannot support a healthy deer herd. To clinch his argument with hunters, he shows off two sets of antlers.
The one ten-point rack was so enormous I thought it belonged to an elk. The other was a more “normal” deer rack, the kind that is usually seen throughout Pennsylvania. According to Dzemyan, both racks belonged to a local, recently deceased old hunter who had been killing deer in the same area all his life. The large rack came from a buck he had shot when the habitat was still good. The small rack had grown on a buck he had shot many years later when the habitat was poor.
Furthermore, Dzemyan asserted, “Deer are affecting the habitat for all creatures.” To illustrate this point he tells visitors about a mother bear and three cubs he discovered denning on a nearby clearcut. He had them all tagged by wildlife biologists. Two were later shot in Clarion County where there are plenty of blackberries.
“They had gone that far to find food,” he concludes.
By the end of the day we had seen more exclosures than we thought possible. Not quite the 150 Dzemyan is responsible for, but a dizzying number nonetheless. We were impressed by the diversity of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees that had germinated in the protected areas, proof that the seed source was still there. But because the damage has been going on for many decades, when the deer herd was much higher (60 to 70 per square mile in many places), it will take many years, of much smaller deer herds, before the big woods will recover.
Of course, the alternative would be to continually clearcut the northern part of the state, as was done at the turn of the century, and keep it in the brushy condition that supports the largest number of deer. In the absence of that totally ridiculous alternative, a smaller deer herd (10 to 20 per square mile) is necessary to retain all the components of a healthy forest.
Our own small exclosure–16 feet by 16 feet–has been slower than Dzemyan’s to show results because our property and neighboring properties have a wide diversity of forest and field habitats, everything from recent clearcuts to mature oak and black cherry forests producing heavy mast crops. Still, in some portions of our forest, we can see a clear browse line where there is no foliage below four to five feet.
Near the Far Field, along the Far Field Road, we built our exclosure in the spring of 1995. For three years, we felt a little foolish about it. The same striped maple and red maple seedlings outside the fence sprang up inside the fence. Then, in the fall of 1998, I noticed new plants on the forest floor. A couple large Solomon seal wildflowers displayed deep blue berries amid a thick blanket of Canada mayflower leaves. I had never seen either wildflower growing on top of our dry mountaintop and had assumed they only liked the steep, moist banks of our hollow road and stream where they thrived.
Could they be favorite deer food? Last spring I watched the exclosure and its surroundings more carefully. Both Canada mayflowers and Solomon’s seal germinated outside and inside the fence. But within a month those outside the fence had disappeared while those inside blossomed and set seed.
I also discovered the 18-inch phenomenon we had observed inside Dzemyan’s exclosure where several of our Solomon’s seals had been nipped off.
Now we are eager to build more exclosures in different habitats. Who knows what seed sources still exist in our soil, waiting to be released. Perhaps more round-leaved orchids, such as the one we found one spring at the Far Field and fenced the following year after the first flower stem had been nipped off by deer. Or maybe the nodding ladies’ tresses I discovered one September and watched expand the next year before they were all eaten by deer, will return.
Luckily, the folks who hunt on our land understand the necessity of keeping our deer herd in balance with a healthy forest, so they hunt not only bucks but does. They know, in the words of Dzemyan, that “wildlife populations revolve around and depend upon habitat like the earth does the sun.” Without a wide variety of wildflowers, vines, shrubs and trees, not only deer, but all the other creatures of the forest will suffer.
Sidebar: The Pennsylvania Game Commission plans to build exclosures in every county in Pennsylvania. In the meantime, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has built a one-acre exclosure and two smaller ones in Cook Forest State Park along the Cook Nature Trail, one mile upstream from Cooksburg in Jefferson County. They will be studying the effects of deer feeding in old-growth forests. They also want to educate the public so the area features signs that define old growth forests, explain their reasons for fencing, and provide forestry information to park visitors. They plan to update these signs annually based on the information they gain from the ongoing study. It will probably be four years before there is much change in the exclosures, but it is certainly worth watching, especially if you live near the park.