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Larger deer herds eat saplings at Kleinstuck

Damaged young sassafras sapling in Kleinstuck Nature Preserve. Bucks, male deer, rub antlers on the trunk, shredding the bark. The brown outer bark has been shredded to reveal the white inner bark.
Leona Larson
A damaged sassafras sapling in Kleinstuck Nature Preserve. Bucks rub their antlers against young trees, injuring them by exposing their inner bark.

Kalamazoo’s booming deer population may threaten a nature preserve’s future.

Erin Fuller is with the conservation group Stewards of Kleinstuck. Standing on a trail at the Kalamazoo nature preserve, Fuller said it faces an overabundance of white-tailed deer.

“They appear to be eating all of the native tree seedlings or most of the native tree seedlings. We find very few young trees in the preserve now," she said.

Fuller was at Kleinstuck last week with other volunteers. They were removing non-native, invasive trees and brush like honeysuckle, buckthorn, and bittersweet from the preserve. These are plants the deer won’t eat because they didn’t evolve with them. But more deer means less food to go around, so they’re going after things they don’t normally eat, like native tree saplings, trillium, and pokeweed.

“They're starting to eat things we've never seen them eat before,” said Fuller. “This summer I saw pokeweed, the young tender growth of pokeweed was nibbled on, almost every single plant in the preserve.”

Fuller said if they don’t protect the native saplings now, they won’t have new trees to replace the older ones as they die.

“In 20 years, 25 years, that's when I think we'll start noticing the big trees are dying,” said Fuller, “and there are no young trees taking their place. It's just really gonna look different.”

More deer also mean more bucks rubbing antlers on tree trunks to remove the velvet and mark the buck’s territory. That shreds the outer bark, which can be fatal for young trees.

“They can take off enough bark that it kills the tree and so we've started putting little tree guards around some of those saplings, the native saplings, to protect them.”

A black or dark green metal tree guard fence protects a young oak tree near a marsh watering hole in Kleinstuck Nature Preserve. A buck has already caused a lot of damage by rubbing its antlers on the trunk.  The shredded outer bark can be seen through the tree guard.
Leona Larson
The Stewards of Kleinstuck wrapped this young oak tree with a metal tree guard. The tree, which is growing near a watering hole for white-tail deer has already been damaged. The outer bark was damaged by a buck rubbing his antlers on the trunk.

It's hard to say just how big the state's deer population is. The Detroit Free Press recently estimated the number of deer in Michigan at 2 million, up from 300,000 only a decade ago. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources wouldn’t confirm those figures.

“We don’t estimate population size. While the population trends we monitor are showing an increase, we can’t translate that to an estimated number of deer or a percent increase,” said MDNR’s Chad Stewart, in an emailed statement.

Stewart is the deer, elk, and moose management specialist at MDNR. While he wouldn’t estimate the size of the herd, MDNR did confirm the number of Michigan hunters has decreased. That, along with fewer natural predators and milder winters, has contributed to the increase in the number of white-tail deer.

Along with wrapping individual saplings with a tree guard, Fuller said the group is considering fencing off some sections of the preserve for research purposes. She said comparing areas where the deer have been prevented from grazing with areas where deer have free rein, will help determine the best solutions.

“What is a healthy herd size for the area? You know, we like deer, we want the deer to be healthy. How many deer could live in Kleinstuck and be healthy and not damage the ecosystem? I don't have those answers, but I'd love to work with Western or K College and start having some of those conversations,” Fuller said.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.