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Title: Assessing plant community composition fails to capture impacts of white-tailed deer on native and invasive plant species

Excessive herbivory can have transformative effects on forest understory vegetation, converting diverse communities into depauperate ones, often with increased abundance of non-native plants. White-tailed deer are a problematic herbivore throughout much of eastern North America and alter forest understory community structure. Reducing (by culling) or eliminating (by fencing) deer herbivory is expected to return understory vegetation to a previously diverse condition. We examined this assumption from 1992 to 2006 at Fermilab (Batavia, IL) where a cull reduced white-tailed deer ( Odocoileus virginianus) abundance in 1998/1999 by 90 % from 24.6 to 2.5/km 2, and at West Point, NY, where we assessed interactive effects of deer, earthworms, and invasive plants using 30 × 30 m paired fenced and open plots in 12 different forests from 2009 to 2012. We recorded not only plant community responses (species presence and cover) within 1 m 2 quadrats, but also responses of select individual species (growth, reproduction). At Fermilab, introduced Alliaria petiolata abundance initially increased as deer density increased, but then declined after deer reduction. The understory community responded to the deer cull by increased cover, species richness and height, and community composition changed but was dominated by early successional native forbs. At West Pointmore » plant community composition was affected by introduced earthworm density but not deer exclusion. Native plant cover increased and non-native plant cover decreased in fenced plots, thus keeping overall plant cover similar. At both sites native forb cover increased in response to deer reduction, but the anticipated response of understory vegetation failed to materialize at the community level. Deer-favoured forbs ( Eurybia divaricata, Maianthemum racemosum, Polygonatum pubescens and Trillium recurvatum) grew taller and flowering probability increased in the absence of deer. Plant community monitoring fails to capture initial and subtle effects of reduced or even cessation of deer browse on browse sensitive species. As a result, measuring responses of individual plants (growth, flowering and reproductive success) provides a more sensitive and powerful assessment of forest understory responses to deer management.« less
 [1] ;  [2] ;  [3]
  1. Natural Area Consultants, Richford, NY (United States)
  2. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY (United States); SUNY Cortland, Cortland, NY (United States)
  3. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY (United States)
Publication Date:
Report Number(s):
Journal ID: ISSN 2041-2851; 1628237
Grant/Contract Number:
Accepted Manuscript
Journal Name:
AoB Plants
Additional Journal Information:
Journal Volume: 9; Journal Issue: 4; Journal ID: ISSN 2041-2851
Oxford University Press; Annals of Botany Company
Research Org:
Fermi National Accelerator Lab. (FNAL), Batavia, IL (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE Office of Science (SC), High Energy Physics (HEP) (SC-25)
Country of Publication:
United States
59 BASIC BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES; 60 APPLIED LIFE SCIENCES; deer herbivory; deer management; earthworms; forest understory; invasive species; multiple stressors; plant community
OSTI Identifier: