Big Woods management means deer and more

The deer population at Fermilab once nearly devastated these white trillium wildflowers, which can be found in the Big Woods area in early spring. Through continued deer management and monitoring of the area, Fermilab can help to continue diversifying the area’s woodland plants. Photo: Reidar Hahn.

Fermilab manages whitetail deer to ensure the deer stay in balance with the rest of the ecosystem. When out of balance, the deer or ecosystem suffer, such as in the past when deer devastated the forest undergrowth in the area called the Big Woods, north of Wilson Hall.

In 1993 the deer herd was reduced by nearly 80 percent and has been maintained at that level. The spring ephemerals and other ground-layer plants have recovered – at least partially. Studies of Big Woods vegetation show that overall plant cover has increased by almost 150 percent, and deer damage has decreased by more than 80 percent. These numbers confirm the visual impression one has walking through the woods in spring and early summer.

However, although the number of plant species has remained constant, species diversity has declined, according to the most recent study. This occurs because although there is more growth, the community is increasingly dominated by a few species. One species, woodland knotweed, accounts for almost one-third of the undergrowth vegetation in a 2010 plant study, and the four most common species account for 66 percent of all flowering activity. These results suggest that, although deer management has reaped important rewards, additional management of the forest is need.

The latest report recommends continued deer management and monitoring of the Big Woods plant community. It also recommends that we consider additional management strategies for the forest, conduct more research there, and implement a new tree planting program in the woods where tree recovery lags. Fermilab Natural Areas is considering ways to fund these efforts in the future and provide opportunities for volunteer participation.

— Rod Walton