An understanding of white-tailed deer relationships to ecosystem components (biodiversity) is a high priority for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ deer management program and the current Virginia Deer Management Plan recognizes that practical and efficient assessments of deer impacts need to be developed. Indeed, a need to link population goals directly to ecosystem impacts is explicitly provided by the plan. Virginia’s location along the central and southern Appalachians along with the relatively large amount of public land has caused unique and temporally variable challenges for white-tailed deer management. In essence, depending on location, the western Virginia deer herd can, at the extremes, can display characteristics of the overabundant deer range of north-central Pennsylvania to that more similar of the rare or nearly absent deer ranges of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Along the southern and southwestern portion of the mountains, poor habitat quality and mast-driven density independent factors historically have resulted in low- to medium-density herds with poor physiological condition and low annual expectations from the hunting public. Conversely, central and northern portions of the mountains experienced higher deer densities from the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s than at present. This may have raised the expectations of the hunting public, particularly those relying on public land (e.g., national forest) as well as causing localized impacts to agriculture, forest regeneration and overall biodiversity and natural community integrity. Considerable declines in deer density (from > 40/sq mi to 20/sq mi or less) have likely resulted from a combination of liberalized harvest regulations on private lands in conjunction with numerous extrinsic factors such as harsh winters, successive poor mast crops, continued decline of traditional early successional habitat management on public land, increased black bear and coyote populations, changed road access on public lands and changed ownership and management of private forest lands. Whether or not increases are desirable from a biodiversity perspective or even possible from harvest/hunting opportunity standpoint is unknown without a better understanding of how the inherent landscape characteristics and current land management conditions variation can be related to deer harvest and density. Accordingly, the main justification from an agency perspective of this work is improve deer population management objectives as they relate to ecosystem response and impacts to deer and the assessment tools needed to measure the successful or unsuccessful meeting of those objectives. Secondarily, data from this work will be important for maintaining and improving deer habitat quality and quantity when and where appropriate consistent with the goals of the plan.
1) Goal: To conduct literature review on assessment of deer impacts to biodiversity and develop prototype assessment techniques suitable for Virginia environments.
2) Goal: To understand the variation in deer impact and contribution of inherent landscape features, public-private ownership patterns and relative deer density across western Mountains.
3) Goal: To determine if legacy effects from deer overabundance are quantifiable the extent to which present herd and lags in vegetation recovery are linked or are disassociative.