A Slow Walk Protects the Floral Wreath from Faunal Teeth!

January 30, 2012

Sunny hike with NJCF

photo by Annie Taggart

By Dr. Emile DeVito
Manager of Science & Stewardship
New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Volunteering can be as simple as carefully putting one foot in front of the other!

About 80 hikers gathered at the Apshawa Preserve in West Milford on Dec. 11. They weren’t there to simply enjoy the crisp air and gorgeous scenery, but to help New Jersey Conservation Foundation restore a struggling forest.

The mission of the “Volun-Deer Hike” was to form a human walking chain that would gently encourage as many white-tailed deer as possible to leave the 300-acre “exclosure,” or deer exclusion area, built one year earlier at this Passaic County preserve.

The fenced exclosure is designed to allow native plants to regenerate and thrive, and is the largest fenced forest restoration area in New Jersey!

The hikers at Apshawa that chilly Sunday morning were a hardy, experienced bunch. As they registered, they wondered how we could possibly fan out across 300 acres (half a square mile) and convince deer to exit through temporary openings in the fence. They got their answer as soon as they stepped into some of New Jersey’s most rugged Highlands terrain, which includes steep hillsides, rocky outcrops, stream crossings and wetlands.

The deer drive actually consisted of two separate sweeps, both of which started along a central axis. Volunteers spread out, each about 20 yards apart, walking slowly but deliberately toward openings at the far corners of the fence. The idea was not to cause deer to panic, but to slowly herd them toward the openings.

photos by Sandy Stuart Perry

The marchers were guided by GPS maps and markers set by expert geo-cachers using satellite images and data! The going was slow, but our Volun-Deer hikers succeeded in ushering six of nine deer out into the wilds on the other half of the preserve.

It might not sound like a lot, but having only three (instead of nine) voracious deer browsing on these 300 acres will significantly lessen the damage to young woody trees and shrubs during the cold winter months.

For most New Jersey Highlands forests to be able to recover their native plant understory, the deer populations must be less than 10 per square mile (640 acres), or about 15 percent of current levels. Until our human society decides to confront the forest threat posed by deer, and fund a serious deer reduction initiative, for now we must experiment with recovering pieces of the ecosystem.

The Volun-Deer Hike was New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s second deer drive. In December 2010, our inaugural effort pushed about 11 of 19 deer out of the newly-built exclosure. It was a good start, but we still need to improve the fence operation and get more volunteer monitors to watch for downed trees or open gates. If you would like to volunteer to help monitor the fence, please let us know!

A few months ago we were able to quickly repair “blowdowns” from Hurricane Irene; luckily it takes a while for deer to discover fence holes. Overall, the local deer herd seems to be learning to avoid the fenced area, perhaps because they don’t like walking along its perimeter, and perhaps because it is easier to hang out in unfenced areas.

photos by Annie Taggart

By the way, the fence is built with small gaps for turtles and other small animals, and tree crossings and tunnels for bears and bobcats. We’re continually experimenting with ways to make the fence less pervious to deer, and more pervious to non-hoofed animals.

The fence was installed in the summer of 2010 using a $125,000 grant from the National Forest Foundation. The grant paid for the installation of 3.2 linear miles of fence, removal of invasive plants like Japanese barberry and Oriental bittersweet, and the re-introduction of common native plants like seedling spicebush, viburnum, hazel, and many wildflowers.

The project also included the installation of eleven pedestrian gates along the perimeter of the fence, to encourage public access to the preserve’s trails. The preserve is jointly owned and managed by New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Passaic County Park System.

Deciduous forests like the one at Apshawa are under dual attack from overabundant white-tailed deer and invasive alien plants. It becomes a cascading effect: The deer overbrowse the native plants, allowing the invasives to gain a foothold. Then, because deer eat the invasives less, the invasives thrive while the natives become increasingly scarce. The food chain then crumbles, and animal populations dwindle.

Small deer exclosures have been shown to rapidly reverse the trend of forest degradation and regain plant species diversity, but few are large enough to aid in the increase of animal diversity. Ambitious projects that include fences and/or deer herd culling are underway in many other county park systems, including Essex, Morris, Union, and Monmouth.

Chilly Apshawa reservoir

photo by Sandy Stuart Perry

The Apshawa project should demonstrate that finding a statewide solution to lower the deer herd to an ecologically tolerable statewide level, within closed-canopy, maturing forests, will help to recover our declining wildlife.

Within a few years, visitors to Apshawa should see a marked improvement in the density of shade- tolerant and shade-loving species in the forest understory – the internal core of a healthy forest. Without excessive deer browse, hundreds of native plant, insect, amphibian, reptile and bird species will be able to thrive as the natural food chain is restored beneath the shade of the forest canopy.

For more information about the New Jersey Conservation Foundation:

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