White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) overbrowsing has altered plant species diversity throughout deciduous forest understories in eastern North America. Here we report on a landscape-level (306km2) project in Pennsylvania, USA that tracked the herbaceous community response to deer herd reductions. From 2001 to 2007, we estimated deer densities, browse impact on woody seedlings, and censused the herbaceous flora in permanent plots throughout the area. We assessed herb layer species richness, abundance, and dominance and measured three known phytoindicators of deer impact: Trillium spp., Maianthemum canadense, and Medeola virginiana. We predicted that browse-sensitive taxa would increase in abundance, size, and flowering as would overall species diversity following deer culls and browse impact that declined by an order of magnitude by 2007. Following intensified deer harvests, we observed a limited recovery of the herbaceous community. Trillium spp. abundance, height, and flowering; M. canadense cover; and M. virginiana height all increased following herd reductions. Similarly, forb and shrub cover increased by 130% and 300%, respectively. Nevertheless, species diversity (i.e., richness and dominance) did not vary. Our work demonstrates that reducing deer densities can provide rapid morphological and population-level benefits to palatable species without a concomitant recovery in diversity. We suggest that decreasing deer populations alone may not promote plant diversity in overbrowsed, depauperate forests without additional restoration strategies to mitigate a browse-legacy layer dominated by browse-resistant species.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Nature and Landscape Conservation