Michigan UP Seedling Experiment

I’ve been back from our study area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for over a week so it’s about time I posted something about what we were doing up there.

One of the main issues we will study with our integrated ecological-economic landscape model is the impact of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) herbivory on tree regeneration following cutting. Last November we spent a week planting 2 year-old seedlings in Northern Hardwood forest gaps created by selective timber harvest (like the one in the photo below).

Our plan was to return this spring to examine the impacts of deer browse on these seedlings. In particular, we wanted to examine how herbivory varies across space due to changes in deer population densities (in turn driven by factors such as snow depth).

To this end we selected almost 40 forest sites that would hopefully capture some spatial variation in snowfall and that had recently been selectively harvested. At each site we selected 10 gaps produced by timber harvest in which to plant our seedlings.

In each gap we planted six trees of each of three species: White Spruce (Picea glauca), White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). We chose these coniferous species as these are examples of the mesic confer species the Michigan DNR are trying to restore across our study area, and because we expected a range of herbivory across these species.

At each site we would also undertake deer pellet counts in the spring to estimate the number of deer in the vicinity of the site during the winter (during which time the browse we were measuring would have occurred).

On returning to the study sites a couple of weeks ago we set about looking for the trees we had planted to measure herbivory and count deer pellets. In some cases, finding the trees we planted was easier said than done. We tried to get our field crews to plant the trees in straight lines with equal spacing between each tree. In general, this was done well but on occasion the line could only be described as crooked at best. Micro-topography, fallen tree trunks and limbs, and slash from previous cutting all contributed to hamper the planned planting system. However, we did pretty well and found well over 90% of the trees.

We haven’t begun analyzing our data as yet, but some anecdotal observations stand out. First, the deer preferentially browsed Hemlock over the other species, often removing virtually all non-woody biomass as shown by the ‘before and after’ examples below (NB – these photographs are not of the same tree and this is not a true before/after comparison).

In some cases, the deer not only removed all non-woody biomass but also pulled the tree out of the ground (as shown below).

In contrast, White Pine was browsed to a much lesser extent and White Spruce was virtually untouched (as shown below).

Having a species that was unaffected by deer (i.e. spruce) often made our job of finding the other trees much easier. Finding heavily browsed Hemlock that no longer had any green vegetation was often tricky against a background of forest floor litter.

The next step now is to start looking at this variation in browse through a more quantitative lens. Then we can start examining how browse and deer densities vary across space and how these variables are related to one another and other factors (such as snow depth and distance to conifer stands).

All-in-all the two weeks of work went pretty well. There were some issues with water-logged roads (due to snow melt) meaning we couldn’t get to one or two of the sites we planted at, but generally the weather was pretty good (it only rained heavily one day). I’ll write more once we have done more analysis and stop here with a shot I took at sunrise as I left for home.

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