ESA 2009 Abstract

February 2009 seems to be the month of abstracts. Here’s another we just submitted to the 94th Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, the theme of which is Ecological Knowledge and a Global Sustainable Society.

Local winter white-tailed deer density: Effects of forest cover pattern, stand structure, and snow in a managed forest landscape
James D. A. Millington, Michael B. Walters, Megan S. Matonis and Jianguo Liu
Michigan State University

Background/Question/Methods
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are a ‘keystone herbivore’ with the potential to cause tree regeneration failure and greatly affect vegetation dynamics, stand structure and ecological function of forests across eastern North America. In northern mixed conifer-hardwood forests, local winter-time deer populations are dependent on habitat characterized by patterns of forest cover that provide shelter from snow and cold temperatures (lowland conifer stands) in close proximity to winter food (deciduous hardwood stands). Stand structure may also influence winter spatial deer distribution. Consequently, modification of forest cover patterns and stand structure by timber harvesting may affect local spatial deer distributions, with potential ecological and economic consequences. Here, we ask if forest cover pattern and stand structure, and their interactions with snow depth, can explain winter deer density in the managed forests of the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. For each local winter deer density estimate (from fecal pellet counts) we calculate stand-level characteristics for surrounding ‘landscapes of influence’ of radius 200 m and 380 m. For these data, and modeled snow depth estimates, we use multivariate techniques to produce predictive models and to identify the most important factors driving local deer densities across our 400,000 ha study area.

Results/Conclusions
Distance to the nearest conifer stand consistently explains the most variance in univariate regression models. Deer densities are highest near lowland conifer stands in areas where the proportion of hardwood forest-cover is high but the mean tree diameter-at-breast-height is low. Multiple regression models including these factors explain up to 38% of variance in deer density and have up to a 68% chance of correctly ranking a site’s deer density (relative to other sites within our study area). We are unable to conclusively show that snow depth has a significant impact on winter deer density, but our data suggest that more detailed investigation into the combined effect of distance to lowland conifer and snow depth may prove fruitful. Our results quantify clear effects of stand structure and forest cover composition on the winter spatial distribution of white-tailed deer. We briefly discuss how these results can be used in an ecological-economic simulation model of a managed forest for tree regeneration risk assessment. Use of these results, and the simulation model, will help identify management practices that can decrease deer impacts and ensure the ecological and economic sustainability of forests in which deer browse is proving problematic for tree regeneration.

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