Ungulate herbivory occurring within a forest plant community’s natural range of variation may help maintain species diversity. However, acute or chronically elevated levels of herbivory can produce dramatic changes in forest communities. For example, chronically high levels of herbivory by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus
Zimmerman) in regions of historically low abundance at northern latitudes have dramatically altered forest community composition. In eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis
L. Carrière) stands where deer aggregate during winter, high deer use has been associated with a shift towards deciduous species (i.e., maples [Acer
spp.]) dominating the regeneration layer. Especially harsh winters can lead to deer population declines, which could facilitate regeneration of species that have been suppressed by browsing, such as hemlock. To enhance our understanding of how fluctuations in herbivory influence regeneration dynamics, we surveyed regeneration and deer use in 15 relict hemlock stands in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2007 and again in 2015. With the exception of small seedlings (0.04–0.24 m height), primarily maples whose abundance increased significantly (p
< 0.05), we observed widespread significant declines (p
< 0.05) in the abundance of medium (0.25 ≤ 1.4 m height) and large regeneration (>1.4 m tall ≤ 4 cm diameter at breast height) over the study period. Midway through our study period, the region experienced a high severity winter (i.e., “polar vortex”) which resulted in a substantial decline in the white-tailed deer population. Given the dominance of maples and dearth of hemlock in the seedling layer, the decline in the deer population may fail to forestall or possibly hasten the trend towards maple dominance of the regeneration layer as these stands recover from pulses of acute herbivory associated with high-severity winters and the press of chronically high herbivory that precedes them.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited