A white-tailed deer stands at forest's edge near a resting flock of Canada geese at Terrapin Nature Park in Stevensville, Maryland. Also known as the Virginia deer, the white-tailed deer gets its name from the white underside of its tail, which it will raise like a flag when alarmed.
In the early 1900s, unrestricted hunting, loss of forests and a rapid increase in development lead to a sharp decline in white-tailed deer populations. Over the next few decades, conservation programs in many states helped re-establish deer populations in the Eastern United States. But just as deer populations had previously suffered, the numbers of their natural predators—wolves, coyotes and mountain lions—fell, too. And as deer populations rebounded, a lack of these major predators allowed herds to grow exponentially, bringing with them a multitude of growing pains, including damage to agricultural crops and gardens, a loss of diversity in plant species and dangerous deer-vehicle collisions.
Scientists refer to the maximum population size that can thrive in a given habitat as that area’s “biological carrying capacity”: the amount of individuals in a species that can survive indefinitely on the food, water and other necessities available in the environment. But another concept is the “cultural carrying capacity”: the number of individuals of a species that can coexist comfortably with the local human population. Deer management experts across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are working to solve the complex puzzle of maintaining deer populations at levels that both support a healthy ecosystem and strike a balance with humans.
Image by Will Parson
It’s a cold morning in Chestertown, Maryland—just above freezing. Greg Cole is waiting outside of his silver pickup truck, covered head to toe in camouflage, his bright white beard the only solid color on him. Today is Groundhog Day, but Cole’s not looking for rodents’ shadows; he’s keeping his eyes on the sky looking for an entirely different critter: the Canada goose. Cole is a hunting guide, and today is the second-to-last day of the migratory goose hunting season.
The term “migratory” is key, because Canada geese fall into one of two categories: resident and migratory. Resident geese live permanently in populated areas. They hang around golf courses and other open areas, and they’re considered a nuisance by many because they overgraze areas and generate a lot of waste. Migratory geese look similar to their homebody cousins but lead very different lives: they breed up north in Quebec, migrate to the Bay region in early autumn, stay throughout the winter and return to their breeding grounds in the spring.
Cole’s hopeful for a good hunt today. The waterfowl hunting hasn’t been good this year, he says, “mainly because of the weather.” The warm weather kept the geese from migrating south until later in the season. “This lake,” he says, gesturing to a slow-moving arm of the Chester River about a quarter of a mile away, “I’ve seen it hold as many as 10,000 geese, and this year, there’s probably [been] an average of about 500 geese all through the season.”
Despite this year’s low turnout, the number of breeding pairs has been healthy for the past few years—but that hasn’t always been the case. In the late 1980s, the population of migratory Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway began to drop dramatically. A mixture of bad weather and overharvesting led to a serious decline in the migratory goose population, so much so that in 1995, Maryland instituted a moratorium on hunting them.
Cole has been a hunting guide almost continuously since 1980 and remembers when the moratorium was first instated. “It was tough to take, when they said we were going to close it down,” he says. “We didn’t know if it was going to be shut down for two years or ten.” The moratorium was set in two-year increments and ultimately lasted six years.
Now Cole guides at a private hunt club of about 30 on Chino Farms, a part of the Grasslands Partnership, which was placed under conservation easement in 2001. At over 5,000 acres, it’s the largest conservation easement in Maryland’s history. It contains a 90-acre waterfowl sanctuary, three miles of shoreline along the Chester River and 600 acres of Delmarva bay, making it a great habitat for rare and endangered plants, Delmarva fox squirrels and other woodland critters. In 2006, the land was designated as an Important Bird Area by Maryland-DC Audubon.
Cole leads us to a nearby field where three club members will be hunting today. His two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Geena, tags along, anticipating the chance to run our and retrieve birds. There is a group of geese grazing in the field, but as we approach, none of them fly away—in fact, they don’t move at all. These are the decoys used to attract the geese, and this group of about 60 taxidermied Canada geese is pretty convincing. Each is in a different position: some are standing tall starting off in different directions, others are posed to look like they are pecking at the ground.
As we wait, geese begin to fly by; some are in large groups with 20 or 30 geese, while others are smaller with just two or three. Alternating between short blips and longer whines, Cole uses the call, a sort of goose-whistle, hanging around his neck to “speak” their language and convince the geese to fly down towards the decoys “grazing” in the field in front of us.
A half hour passes and still no geese get close. “You know it’s a slow day when the dog goes to sleep,” Cole says, laughing as he looks down at Geena who is lying on the bench, no longer exuding the excitement and anticipation she had been earlier in the day.
Despite today’s silence and this season’s luck, Cole isn’t pessimistic about the future of goose hunting. “The biggest problem this year has been the weather—without a doubt. And I don’t think they had a real good hatch.” In terms of the moratorium, while it shook up hunting on the Eastern Shore, Cole maintains, “It definitely was a success story.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images and captions by Will Parson
Text by Joan Smedinghoff
When most people talk about forests, they mention hunting, or the timber market, or environmental conservation. But when Susan Benedict discusses her forest – a 200,000 acre property in Centre County, Pennsylvania – she talks about family.
“We all work together. This is a family operation,” she says as we drive to her property along a Pennsylvania State Game Lands road that winds through the Allegany Mountains from Black Moshannon to Pennsylvania-504.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
A desire to keep the mountaintop property in the hands of her children and grandchildren motivated Benedict to implement sustainable forestry practices, participate in Pennsylvania’s Forest Stewardship Program and certify the property under the American Tree Farm System. By managing her forest in an environmentally conscious way, Benedict ensures that stands of ash, red oak and beech will be around in a hundred years for her great-grandchildren to enjoy.
But Benedict’s involvement in forest conservation doesn’t mean that she’s rejecting the land’s economic and recreation potential. The property’s plethora of hardwoods allows the family to participate in the timber market. As a large and secluded mountaintop property, it has attracted wind farms seeking to turn wind into energy. Its location along the Marcellus Shale makes it a desirable location for natural gas developers. This multitude of interested parties, each with its own vision, can be overwhelming for any property owner.
Since different stakeholders preach different benefits and drawbacks of extracting these natural resources, Benedict took charge and carefully investigated the issues herself, knowing her family’s land was at stake. Her decisions balance the property’s economic potential with her desire to keep her family forest as pristine as it was when she explored it as a child.
We talk so much about the environmental benefits of trees that it’s easy to forget that they’re also a business.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
“My forester assures me that your woods are like your stock portfolio,” Benedict explains. “You don’t want to cut out more annual growth than what you’re generating, and in fact, you want to shoot for (cutting) less than what you’re generating. Right now, we are good; what we are taking out, we are generating.”
Before any logging is done, a county forester walks the property and designates which trees can be removed. Then it’s time to cut. Benedict has one logger, an ex-Vietnam veteran whose wife occasionally accompanies him. “He cuts whatever the mills are wanting,” says Benedict.
The challenge occurs when mills want something that shouldn’t be cut. “It’s a little more problematic because we have to market what we want to get rid of, instead of the lumber mills telling us what they want,” Benedict explains.
But Benedict won’t let natural resource markets sway her forest management decisions. She’s taking charge by telling lumber mills that she’ll give them what she wants to give them – no more, no less. Of course, the economic incentives of sustainable forest management make saying “no” easier.
One of these economic rewards is the Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to landowners seeking to “promote agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals.”
Benedict’s EQUIP project will enhance growth on mass-producing trees such as hickory, oak, cherry, hazelnut, beech nut and others that produce animal feed. “Basically, we want to get the trees to grow quicker, and re-generate better.”
Family health problems put Bendict's EQUIP project on hold. Since it needed to be completed by the end of summer, Benedict’s brothers and her three sons (age 15, 24 and 27) held mandatory family work days each weekend from the Fourth of July to the end of September.
“It’s a 200,000-acre property, which translates to a lot of work. But I think that’s good,” Benedict assures me, even though she also sweat through the word during the height of summer’s humidity. “When you have concentrated time like that, you actually talk to each other. If you meet for an hour meeting, no one ever gets around to saying what they want. You get down to what’s real.”
Using the forest as a mechanism to unite her family has been Benedict’s goal since she and her brothers inherited the property after her father’s death.
Benedict tells me that her three boys “have to help out, whether they want to or not.” Their involvement – even if it is forced sometimes – allows the family to connect to the property. Benedict hopes the hard work will inspire them to adopt sustainable forestry management practices when they inherit the land.
We’ve all experienced times when nature takes over and there’s nothing we can do about it – whether we’re a farmer that’s experienced a devastating drought or a commuter who’s had to pull over in a heavy rainstorm because we couldn’t see the road in front of us.
This happened to Benedict and her team six years ago, when a three-year gypsy moth infestation destroyed 80 percent of a red oak stand. The damage cost her more than one million dollars in timber profits on a 2,000-acre lot.
“Al (Benedict's logger) had worked so hard on the stand. And it’s not a fun place to work – rocky and snake-infested. We were all so proud of how it came out. And then three years worth of caterpillars, and it was destroyed.”
Biological sprays of fungi can sometimes prevent gypsy moth infestations. The caterpillars die after ingesting the fungi for a few days.
Benedict could have sprayed the fungi, but it may not have worked. It’s a big risk to take when you’re paying $25 per acre (that’s $50,000 in total). Not only do you need the money, but you must have three consecutive rain-free days in May, the only time of year you can spray.
So when the emerald ash borer – the invasive green insect that has destroyed between 50 and 100 million ash trees in the United States – made its first appearance in Pennsylvania, Benedict began cutting down her ash trees. “We got them to market before they got killed.”
By paying attention to both environmental and market pressures, Benedict’s forest is both sustainable and profitable.
Benedict’s property is isolated. For wind-power developers, that means fewer people will complain about the loud noise and shadows that make living near wind turbines burdensome. The land is also atop a mountain, which, of course, means it experiences high winds.
“It’s very hard to decide to have that much development on your property, but honestly, it will provide a nice retirement for my brothers and me,” Benedict says. “Everyone I talk to assures me that once the construction phase is over, it doesn’t hurt the trees, it doesn’t hurt the wildlife. The wildlife could care less, which has been my observation on most things that we do. After it gets back to normal, they don’t care and they adjust.”
Environmental surveys, which are required by law before construction, affirm Benedict’s insights. A group hired to do a migratory bird study constructed a high tower atop the mountain. “They stayed up there every evening and morning in March,” Benedict says with a shiver.
Another contractor is delineating wetlands on the property: identifying and marking wetland habitat and making sure construction does not affect these areas.
Benedict and her family even had the opportunity to learn what kinds of endangered and threatened animals live on their property. “They found seven timber rattlesnake dens, and had to relocate one of the turbines because it was too close to the den,” Benedict explains. The teams also surveyed Allegany wood rats and northern bulrushes, a critical upland wetland plant.
“I decided to [lease property to the wind farm] because the only way we are ever going to know if wind is a viable technology is if we get some turbines up, see what works, see what doesn’t work, and allow that process of invention to move. And we have to have someone to host it.”
And according to the surveys, Benedict’s property is the perfect host.
As Benedict drives her pickup around the property, she points out the site of her father's former saw mill, where she once worked, and shows me to the cabin that the family built after her grandfather died in 1976. Nearby, there's a section of forest that the family is converting to grouse habitat, which will support her brother's love of grouse hunting.
(Image courtesy Susan Benedict)
The uses of the property fluctuate as family members' interests change. Benedict affirms that managing the property sustainably will give her grandchildren the freedom to pursue their interests in the years to come.
"A lot of people go the route of having a conservation easement, but who knows what the best use of that property is going to be in 100 years. If my dad did that, we would have very little use of the property now, and certainly very little flexibility with these things, especially the wind and natural gas."
Benedict is a member of the Centre County Natural Gas Task Force. "You hear all sorts of things about natural gas development and water resources, and in order to make sure it wasn’t going to be horrible, I joined the task force," she explains.
Benedict also allows 15 or so individuals to hunt and fish on her property for a small annual fee. Control of the deer population in particular is essential for her timber operations.
But no matter what happens, Benedict insists, the forest will stay in the family.
"We made a pact that everyone will have to sell all of their belongings before we sold this," she says. "There's some things, you know, you got to make work out."
Benedict’s forest management practices and involvement in the sustainable forestry community has earned her recognition as a 2011 Forest Steward Champion by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
At the turn of the 20th century, market hunting had caused white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) populations to reach historic lows across the United States, with numbers hovering between an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 deer. In some areas white-tail deer disappeared completely, while in the Chesapeake region deer were usually only found along the extreme western edge of the watershed.
In 1900, Congressional passage of the Lacy Act prohibited the interstate trafficking of wild game, relieving pressure on deer populations. White-tails received further reprieve in 1908, when 41 states established departments of natural resources, which placed strict protections on the animals and instituted restocking programs.
Deer populations rose steadily in the following decades. While careful deer management by wildlife officials is partially responsible for the white-tails' rebound, deer also adapted to and prospered in the landscapes of America's sprawling suburbs. Mass development in the Bay watershed during the 1980s and 1990s carved up forests and farmland, creating “fringe” habitat that allowed white-tails to thrive. Some current estimates place the national white-tail population at 30 million. In Maryland alone, the 2005-2006 white-tail population was estimated at 269,000 deer.
White-tail deer are a favorite of many watershed residents and their resurgence has been greeted with enthusiasm by those who thrill at the sight of a big buck or a doe and her fawns. But when deer populations become too large, they can have a negative effect on their environment.
In the Bay ecosystem, the largest impact is the over-consumption of vegetation. Forest regeneration bears the brunt of the white-tail's voracious appetite as seedlings and shoots are usually consumed before they can grow to a size that can withstand occasional “browsing.” Over-consumption also impedes and distorts forests that are trying to recover from fire or logging. When forest habitats become over-browsed, deer naturally turn elsewhere to feed. Many homeowners experience this impact through the loss of ornamental plantings in the home landscape.
Large whitetail populations can also wipe out native vegetation such as shrubs and grasses, opening the way for noxious weeds and invasive plant species to take root. Deer usually prefer not to browse on non-native species if their traditional meals can be found, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle.
An overabundance of whitetail deer can also substantially impact other wildlife in the area. Decreasing forest understory deprives essential food and cover to songbirds, reptiles and small mammals, which have a direct effect on the wildlife that count on those species to survive.
To learn more about whitetail deer and their influence on the Bay, attend the 30th Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting on Feb. 25-27, 2007 in Ocean City, Md. This year's theme will be “Deer and Ecosystem Impact.” For more information, please contact Doug Hotton, Deer Project Leader with Maryland Department of Natural Resources, at firstname.lastname@example.org.