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Quantifying effects of deer browsing on vegetation establishment, growth and development in large-extent overwash fans

December 5, 2018

Hurricane Sandy provided a unique opportunity to better understand the potential effects of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis) on recovering vegetation in areas overwashed by Hurricane Sandy in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Area. White-tailed deer are the dominant herbivore on Fire Island and they are known to decrease plant diversity, limit reproduction and growth of some plant species, and facilitate growth and expansion of non-native species through selective browsing. Deer also negatively affect the federally-threatened seabeach amaranth plants along the island’s beaches. Deer impacts to forest understory and regeneration have been documented in Fire Island’s Sunken Forest for decades, though their impacts to recovering dune vegetation are less understood and could restrict the resilience and recovery of primary dunes.

Through use of several vegetation assessment methods, including point intercept and paired permanent exclosures, and deer monitoring with trail cameras, we documented high variability in among-overwash species richness, vegetation cover, and local deer abundance. We observed 29 vegetation species among overwash fans between 2015 and 2016. Greater vegetation cover was observed in northern (i.e., inland) areas of all overwash fans, and greater cover and species richness were documented in fenced permanent plots than in control plots. The greatest effect of deer browsing to recovering dune vegetation was in total vegetation cover, which was significantly greater in fenced permanent plots. Any amaranth plants left open (i.e., un-exclosed) were often heavily browsed and experienced early onset mortality without reproducing. Since Hurricane Sandy, total vegetation cover in overwash fans has significantly increased each year, despite deer activity and a regional drought in 2016. While deer graze and browse vegetation in overwash fans, deer and humans trample vegetation in some overwash fans and separating effects of each is not possible from exclusion studies alone. Two overwash fans have been consistently impacted by coastal disturbances since Hurricane Sandy, further complicating their recoveries. Monitoring of dune vegetation should continue as communities transition from predominantly grasses to shrubs and forbs to assess effects of deer as palatability of vegetation improves.

Publication Year 2018
Title Quantifying effects of deer browsing on vegetation establishment, growth and development in large-extent overwash fans
Authors Chellby R. Kilheffer, Lindsay Reis, Jordan Raphael, H. Brian Underwood
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title Natural Resources Report
Series Number 2019/2037
Index ID 70209529
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center