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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

How Deer Management Affects Forestland

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Recent Study Finds that Lessons from Tribal Forestlands could Help to Improve the Health of Public Forests in the Northwoods.

Jim Skibo has the story

When you drive into the Menominee tribal land on highway 55 in eastern Langlade County, the change in the forest is striking. The forest has a pristine look, mature trees provide a high canopy and, to the untrained eye, the forest seems healthier. A recent study by Donald M. Waller and Nicholas J. Reo in the journal Ecology and Society provide scientific backing to this impression (https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss1/art45/). The researchers found that tribal forests in northern Wisconsin have a better structure, composition, and diversity than the nearby Forest Service and State Land. According to the article, historical factors and current management practices explain these differences. The tribal forests, and especially the Menomonie tribal lands, had a very different way of managing their forests. By the late 1800s, the Menomonie Tribal Enterprise, as it is known now, did not clear-cut the land as was routinely done outside the tribal boundaries. Instead, they selection harvested old or sick trees, which maintained the canopy above. The practice has been so successful that despite 150 years of logging, their tribal land has more total growing volume than when they started.

For many decades, however, there has been a concerted effort by forest managers of public lands to use timber harvesting practices that are concerned with forest rejuvenation. Despite these efforts, public forestlands still lag behind those managed by the tribes. What accounts for this difference? According to the Waller and Reo study, differences in deer density play a critical role. On public lands, deer browsing severely limits the ability for tree seedlings to establish and grow. The white tail deer eat the seedlings before they have a chance to mature.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Waller, he believes that deer over-browsing has reached a “crisis point.” Deer browsing, according to Waller, has so severely limited regeneration of many tree species that he often gets calls from state and county foresters who are deeply concerned about their ability to regenerate key tree species in their forests because of deer over-population. 

Older hunters will tell you that there was a time when there were deer shortages and it was common to have an unfilled tag. As Dr. Waller explains, public lands wildlife managers came up with very successful plan to increase the deer population. These practices built up the herd but do not make sense anymore for forest health and it creates other problems as well.

Dr. Waller notes that deer overpopulation contributes to chronic wasting disease moving across the state and the Lyme disease epidemic transmitted by black legged or deer ticks.  He also notes that there are now 40,000 or so accidents a year here in Wisconsin, causing injury, death, and damage.

Why don’t the tribal lands have such high deer densities? Dr. Waller explains that maintaining a high tree canopy reduces the amount of available food for the deer, and that the tribal lands have very different attitudes toward deer harvesting and predators. The Ojibwa, for example, believe it is disrespectful to pass on shooting a deer if it presents itself to a hunter. The goal is providing meat for their families not shooting a trophy buck. This practice, along with welcoming predators like wolves on their land, keep the deer herd in balance. 

Dr. Waller wishes that Wisconsin hunters could adopt “this kind of an ethos” that would protect a broader set of values including forest health. The current deer management policy, according to Dr. Waller, is obsolete.

The good news is that Dr. Waller believes that our public forests can be restored if we follow some of the practices adopted on tribal lands and “reimagine” forest and deer management so they could be in balance. 

Dr. Waller concludes, that “we have something to learn here from the tribes. Our papers demonstrated that there are ecologically superior outcomes on the Indian Land. That reflects both their management of forests and wildlife including deer and predators. So let’s pay attention to what those lessons are and see if we can apply them in terms of the nontribal lands.”

Credit ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss1/art45/
Tree Biomass and Housing Density

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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