Oh Deer: Reading between the O&C Lines

By Bob FerrisBob and Deer
 
Before I even thought about wolf and bear advocacy, I worked on deer (at right).  In those pre-wolf times I fully immersed myself in all things Wallmo, was the first through the gate of Clover traps and pioneered some tranquilizer dart capture techniques for black tailed deer. Some of this is rusty now after nearly 30 years but it is coming back quickly as I sort my way once again through the complicated minefield of deer biology from the informative and authoritative to the twisted and spun.  All of us need to do this as we consider the O&C packages and what the timber industry wants you to believe about deer in relationship to clearcuts, herbicide use, replanting regimes and the value and function of old growth.  
 
To sort this out for myself I looked at three primary documents and then spent a lot of time on Google Scholar.  The core documents were: 1) Habitat Guidelines for Black-Tailed Deer: Coastal Rainforest Ecoregion (2008) written by the Mule Deer Working Group (MDWG) and sponsored by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies; 2) Oregon Black-Tailed Deer Management Plan (2008) written by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) staff with heavy input from a myriad of stakeholders including hunting, agricultural and timber interests; and 3) Wildlife in Managed Forests: Deer & Elk written for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI) by a two-person consulting firm in Hillsborough, Oregon with strong connections to the forest industry whose founder recently wrote that "deer and elk are controversial" (see page 13).
 

I have thought a lot of how best to characterize these three documents so that folks will understand their significance and their fundamental, but sometimes subtle differences.  The best I could come up with—and I understand that it borders on hyperbole—is to think of the above clip from the movie Jaws.  When you watch this piece think of Richard Dreyfuss as the MDWG trying to put forth science and commonsense.  Then think of Roy Schneider’s character as the ODFW trying to hold onto the concepts of science and commonsense while negotiating the desires of stakeholders who might not fully understand either.  And then there is Vaughn played by Murray Hamilton—think of OFRI as Vaughn: the entity that represents the financial interests involved and will not tolerate the public disclosure of any information that might be detrimental to economic activity regardless of the impacts.  
 
This impression of a scientific and commonsense spectrum—from rigorous to weak—is only reinforced when one goes to the literature cited sections of the three documents.  For instance, the MDWG work written by deer scientists—mainly with graduate degrees—cited more than 120 different papers and studies in its 47-page document (2.63/page).  This is followed by the ODFW work that justified their declarative statements with 80 separate works in their 53-page opus (1.51/page).  Then there is the OFRI work that employs a scant 15 cites in its 27-page document for a density of about one cite per every two written pages (0.55/page).
 
And while the literature density issue is telling in the OFRI document, there are several other measures to look at that are illustrative of the relative quality of the scholarship employed.  For example, fully one third of the documents cited have the same lead author indicating a narrowness of investigation and less than a third are from peer-reviewed scientific journals with the rest being from what is generally called “gray literature” including a popular website.  Certainly there will be those who see these criticisms as picky, but when dealing with complicated and contentious issues pickiness, depth of scholarship, and the credentials and biases of the authors are important.  
 
"Forestlands used primarily for the production of wood fiber have many characteristics that more closely resemble agricultural lands with intensively managed, even-aged, monocultures and understory plant species that are controlled with herbicides, rather than unaltered forest habitats. Collectively, these characteristics come at the detriment of black-tailed deer in the Coastal Rainforest Ecoregion." (MDWG report page 15)
 
"The results suggest that current commercial forestry practices are compatible with the maintenance of ungulate forage species."  (OFRI report page 12)
 
The above two quotes demonstrate the fundamental disconnect between the MDWG and OFRI worlds.  This is really not surprising when you consider that the former values deer populations and considers them ecological assets while the latter vacillates between viewing them as economically damaging pests and tolerated players (i.e., controversial).  There is no true mystery as to why each party embraces their interpretation of the dynamics but this is really not a case of equally valued “he said-she said” positions because one is broadly employing a methodology to find answers while the other is using a narrower and less complete approach to justify their desired actions (i.e., clearcuts, herbicide use, dense replanting regimes and short rotations).  
 
I fully acknowledge that this is complicated stuff and most of that complication comes from the multi-dimensional nature of black-tailed deer habitat and life-cycle needs as well as their adaptability.  If you are looking for something that can be distilled down into a simple x and y axis then black-tailed deer ecology should probably not be your field of endeavor.  
 
If you are still game, let’s start with some suppositions about their optimal habitat.  If polled, most deer biologists would probably agree that black-tailed deer do best in a diverse matrix of old-growth forest punctuated by small openings created by fire or blow downs with the former providing cover, security and protein-rich winter food and the latter abundant food for the rest of the year.  Certainly the ones involved with the MDWG subscribe to this or something very similar.  
 
"Thus, disturbances such as logging, fire, and windthrow can stimulate forage production. In the absence of management, succession towards closed canopy forest leads to decreases in overall understory biomass, until gap-phase dynamics associated with old growth stands yields patchy increases in understory production within the canopy gaps. Heavy restocking of stands, as is typical of commercial timberlands, can drastically reduce the period of post-disturbance understory proliferation. Modeling of stand dynamics and forest succession at a landscape scale in western Washington suggested that ungulate forage production peaked in the 1960s and declined thereafter through the recent past (Jenkins and Starkey 1996)." (MDWG report page 14)
 
Forestry proponents would smile at my description of what black-tailed deer need and claim that this is wonderful as their modern management provides clearcuts next to maturing forests.  Perfect, right? Well that would be partially true except that the deer take a hit when the clearcuts are large (>50 acres), planted with 400-450 Douglas fir per acre, and sprayed with herbicides.  Moreover, maturing forests if they are less than 200 years old and have a fairly closed canopy may provide some cover but do not have the robust understories that provide the needed high-protein browse necessary for winter survival.  
 
"Instead of eating large quantities of low quality forage like grass, deer must select the most nutritious plants and parts of plants. Because of this, deer have more specific forage requirements than larger ruminants." (MDWG report page 3)
 
For deer, food quality is equally as important as quantity.  Deer like other ruminants have multi-chambered digestive systems that are marvels of evolution, but the systems have their processing limits and if the food quality is low in terms of nutritional factors like protein then deer will have full stomachs but they essentially starve.
 
Herbicide Impact on Black-Tailed Deer Food
“Nonetheless, some impact of herbicides is intuitive when various types of commonly used herbicides, their target species, and intended effects are compared to a partial list of plants comprising the diet of black-tailed deer (Table 1 [see above], Brown 1961, Crouch 1981a, U.S. Forest Service 1987, Rue 1997).” (In MDWG report page 16)
 
“Black-tailed deer roam forested areas of western Washington and Oregon, but some say their numbers are declining. Scientists suspect that’s because these deer are having trouble finding food to eat.” Managing Black-Tailed Deer Through Their Diets by Courtney Flatt in Northwest Public Radio, June 1, 2012
 
 “Now, after logging, herbicides are used to kill the competing vegetation and the forest plantations are re-seeded heavily.
 
“The broadleaf shrubs, trees and forbs eliminated by these efforts [herbicide use] are the very plants that comprise the blacktail deer diet,’’ Holman said.” Blacktail Deer Populations Hanging On, But There's Reason for Concern by Allen Thomas in The Columbian, October 9, 2009
  
“Basically, Westside deer do well in varied habitats that aren’t sprayed with herbicides…” More On Western Washington Blacktail Study by Andy Walgamott in Northwest Sportsman November 19, 2012 
 
When herbicides—which are not prohibited in the O&C bill approved in the House—are used the timber folks will argue: 1) that deer do not avoid vegetation sprayed with herbicides; 2) that deer will absorb the chemicals, but that does not matter to the deer or us; and 3) that the biomass of palatable vegetation stays the same in the switch from leafy and woody vegetation to grasses and forbs (weeds). But food quality is not addressed in any of this.  
 
Fortunately multiple studies are underway in western Washington to look specifically at herbicide use and its impact on black-tailed deer. While we await the findings of these studies, there is ample evidence of risk and impacts that prudence would demand that no acceptable O&C bill should allow for herbicide use.  
 
 "Similarly,because public sentiment generally perpetuates the view that any timber harvest is good for deer, management objectives or regulations that would benefit deer habitat are largely absent from forest management. An emphasis on deer habitat conservation and improvement should be incorporated into all forms of land use planning activities." (MDWG report page 39
 
So what is the take home message here?  I think the core message—if you are concerned about black-tailed deer (and elk too)—is to be very, very wary of any legislative proposals that turn large portions of the O&C lands over to anything approaching commercial-style management without express consideration and mitigation of the impacts of large clearcuts, herbicide use, and restocking densities. Moreover, if these schemes do not include well-defined mechanisms to increase understory production and dedicate significant stands within these logging areas to longer rotations through a system of distributed stands with old-growth characteristics then, from a black-tailed deer perspective, they should be questioned or opposed.  
 
In all of this I would also urge folks to be cautious of sportsmen’s groups arguing that black-tail deer declines are the result of the spotted owl or the resultant Northwest Forest Plan–they clearly have not looked at the issue long term.  Similarly, groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that seem to walk in locked step with the timber industry or claim that the problem is a lack of clearcutting need to spend a little time in the literature.  For just as hunting is not always conservation, in spite of claims to the contrary, timber management is not usually done for the benefit of wildlife–quite the opposite is true.  
 

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