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Direct and indirect effects of white-tailed deer in forest ecosystems



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Forest Ecology and Management 181 2003 165 176 Direct and indirect effects of white tailed deer in forest ecosystems Thomas P Rooney Donald M Waller Department of Botany University of Wisconsin at Madison 430 Lincoln Drive Madison WI 53706 USA Received 1 November 2001 received in revised form 26 August 2002 accepted 26 August 2002 Abstract Ungulates can profoundly alter the structure and composition of forest communities via both direct and indirect mechanisms Individual plant species often respond in a unique way to the direct effect of herbivory as a function of their sensitivity to browse damage ungulate food preferences and the density of ungulates present Sustained browsing pressure can limit the regeneration of favored and susceptible woody plants and eliminate populations of favored or susceptible herbaceous plants These losses in turn give rise to indirect effects via trophic cascades or physical habitat modification These indirect effects affect many other plant and animal populations In the mixed conifer hardwood forests around the Great Lakes in North America widespread habitat modification and the extirpation of native predators and other ungulates have acted to boost populations of white tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus to historically high densities Such densities have curtailed regeneration of several important conifers e g Tsuga canadensis and Thuja occidentalis as evidenced by demographic analysis Deer also appear to limit regeneration of Quercus and Betula in many areas Impacts on understory herbs are harder to assess but baseline data from 50 years ago indicate that these communities are changing in a pattern that implicates deer grasses sedges and some ferns are increasing while overall herb diversity is declining Thus deer are playing a keystone role in these communities We are currently assessing an additional set of questions including How best can we measure and represent ungulate impacts At which densities do deer threaten forest diversity



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