September’s here, and along with it comes the end of summer, the season’s first frosts, autumn colors and the glorious fall months of the Northland. We’re already noticing the telltale signs — some songbirds are beginning their migration south, hummingbirds have become less abundant at our feeders and white-tailed deer bucks are shedding velvet to expose the hard bone underneath and soon-to-be polished and gorgeous racks.
During this time of plenty, when natural foods are still very abundant, wildlife everywhere are taking advantage of mild weather and the changing season.
Deer are feeding in the forests and fields with nary a worry. They’re nearly as content as cattle, going about their lives unimpeded by deep snows and howling cold winds. Deer, bear, waterfowl and other birds — along with many other species of wildlife — are busy feeding to put on extra fat reserves for the long winter ahead and migrations across the continent.
Even so, life isn’t always rosy for wildlife despite plenty to eat and mild winters. To be sure, individual deer, for example, will benefit by abundant food, long autumns and mild winters.
If this winter ends up being like last winter, then most — if not all — deer will emerge from the season with fat to spare.
But is this really good for the herd? For the long-term health of them all?
Understandably these points are arguable. Yet, it is my belief that too many deer on the landscape won’t necessarily equate to the betterment of the herd or the environment.
In some habitats throughout Minnesota where an abundance of deer exist — particularly in urban environments where deer are not necessarily hunted — deer can overeat and cause damage. Many a wooded acre suffers from over-browsing by white-tailed deer. Foresters, wildlife and resource managers and many homeowners agree. In some places, little or no natural regeneration of certain species of trees occur because deer munch them to the ground before they can grow tall enough and out of a deer’s reach.
Species such as white pine, red pine, jack pine, white cedar and many deciduous trees and shrubs — including ornamental varieties — often don’t stand a chance from too many deer that specifically target these desirable and trees.
Take, for instance, Itasca State Park.
The park is managed primarily to maintain and perpetuate the park’s coniferous trees and other native vegetation. It is a main component of the park’s management plan. Keeping seedling depredation by deer to a minimum is an enormous challenge.
Many measures can be implemented to keep tree depredation to a minimum, which resource managers employ.
“Bud capping,” as it’s called, is one such method.
It involves folding and stapling individual sheets of paper on each small pine, over the terminal leader, so deer won’t readily lop off the trees’ tops and thus, allows a tree to continue its vertical growth.
Other measures include spraying trees with deer repellents and slipping plastic tubes over the young saplings.
Hunting is another tool that the park uses to help control the numbers of deer.
Even though white-tailed deer are extremely abundant in Itasca, their absence on the landscape and its effects can also be observed.
How can this be?
The answer is “deer exclosures.”
In the park are exclosures, or in other words, fences that have been constructed in such a way as to keep deer out.
One such exclosure, near Mary Lake, reveals what a forest would appear like without the impact of deer. Park visitors cannot enter the pens, but they can clearly see for themselves through the woven wire that lush and young white and red pine flourish.
Long ago, white-tailed deer were not nearly as plentiful in Minnesota. Timber wolves and vast wilderness kept deer from becoming overly abundant.
The opening of the forests by logging, settlement and farming has created the preferred habitats sought by white-tailed deer.
Today, whitetails have never been more numerous. That withstanding, seeing deer feeding in the fields or bounding through a woodland is a pleasure that I will never grow tired of. They are beautiful and fascinating animals.
But the species’ nature is to multiply, and multiply they do and will.
More and more deer, every year, are causing injury and death to motorists on the highways. Certain diseases are sometimes the result of stressed herds, and perhaps activities such as artificial feeding and raising deer in captivity are factors that also contribute negatively to wild and free-ranging deer.
Just last month, while driving my car near Hackensack during the last minutes of daylight, a young-of-the-year fawn darted out from the roadside ditch, and I struck the unfortunate animal head-on. Too small to damage the vehicle, the fawn nevertheless was killed instantly.
After stopping to assess damage, I drug the tiny deer into the bottom of the ditch, got in my car, and left the scene. Not even one minute later, I almost struck a second fawn. Needless to say, one needs to be especially careful with more deer on the landscape.
Yet nature, the great equilibrium, could indeed strike a blow this winter, possibly negatively affecting the health and survivorship of deer all across the North Country.
In the meantime, throughout much of Minnesota deer are doing well and have increased in numbers once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.