Monday, November 1, 2010

Adirondack Hunting: The Deer Debate

Adirondack hunters often contend that the region’s white-tailed deer population is falling, and they blame the decline on the forever-wild Forest Preserve and the influx of coyotes.

But an article by George Earl in the current Adirondack Explorer reports that the deer herd has been growing in recent decades and appears to be at near-record numbers.

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that the Forest Preserve is poor habitat for deer—or at least not as good as logged land. Logging creates openings in the forest for new vegetation, which is good food for deer.

But Ed Reed, a state biologist, argues that the Forest Preserve is better habitat for deer than once thought. The reason, he says, is that the woods in the Preserve are maturing, and in mature woods, openings often appear as a result of “forest decadence.”

“The pre-colonial forest was not an unbroken stand of huge trees,” Reed told the Explorer. “It was a very diverse mixture of young and old trees, with openings created by fire, wind, and dying old trees.”

Reed predicts the deer population will continue to grow as the Forest Preserve ages.

Not everyone buys Reed’s theory, but time should tell whether he’s right.

Coyotes migrated to New York State in the twentieth century, and hunters contend that they are depleting the Adirondack deer herd. Some have called for an open season on the canids.

“They are the enemy,” said Dan Ladd, the author of Deer Hunting in the Adirondacks. “We are simply seeing more of them while seeing fewer deer.”

Coyotes do prey on deer. Research in other parts of the state, however, suggests that they do not kill enough deer to put a dent in the population. Studies in the Adirondacks are incomplete, but Reed expects that the data will support a similar conclusion.

Whatever the impact of coyotes and the Forest Preserve, it’s curious that hunters report seeing fewer whitetails at a time when the herd seems to be growing. It’s especially curious in that estimates of the deer population are based on hunters’ success in killing bucks.

What’s the explanation? Are the experts wrong? Are the hunters’ wrong?

A more philosophical question is: even if the Forest Preserve and coyotes are affecting the deer population, should we do anything about it? Or should we let nature take its course?

Photo of deer hunter by Seth Lang.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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