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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Disappearing Wildflowers

Air Date: Week of

Biologists in some states around the country say that the number of wildflowers and wildflower species is declining. As Nancy Cohen of WNPR reports, they believe that deer are the primary cause of the problem.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Let’s face it, there’s probably no more appealing creature than a baby white tailed deer. The eyes of a fawn are especially friendly, so as the population of deer has exploded in the suburban eastern U.S., people have hesitated to limit their numbers, even as deer have been linked to the spread of Lyme Disease. Now there’s another problem that may put more deer into the cross hairs of hunters: they are being blamed for a sharp decline in wildflowers. From WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, Nancy Cohen reports.


COHEN: It’s a warm sunny day at the Mianus River Gorge Preserve which straddles the border between New York and Connecticut. Executive director Rod Christie is standing on the edge of the preserve’s old growth forest. He remembers leading wildlife walks here 20 years ago when the plants were tall and dense.

CHRISTIE: The understory vegetation was up to my waist when we were walking along the trail and you just don’t see that now. Now there’s nothing when you’re walking along.

COHEN: The preserve once had nearly 230 species of wild flowers. Christie says the increase in the deer population over the last two decades parallels a decline in certain wildflower species.

CHRISTIE: Some species we don’t see at all any more. Some species we see rarely and they’re small pockets. Some species we see, but they don’t flower and they aren’t in healthy condition. So what we wanted to make sure is that we didn’t lose everything forever.

COHEN: In the early 1900s there were hardly any deer in parts of the northeast due to hunting and deforestation. Some states tried to bring deer back by restricting hunting, which worked maybe a little too well. Today, there are an abundance of deer in the region and they’re being blamed for decimating wild plants. Christie and his colleagues have set out to discover what would happen if deer were kept away from wild flowers.


COHEN: Christie walks through a stand of red maple, white oak and hemlock. He stops at a seven-foot black plastic fence surrounding a half-acre plot. Christie points out purple trillium growing inside the fence.

CHRISTIE: When I first started in this exclosure, I had seven individual plants. Now I have close to 300 plants. So that’s a dramatic change.

COHEN: Not only are the numbers increasing, both trees and wildflowers are taller inside the exclosure than outside.

CHRISTIE: There’s the wild geranium you know that’s flowering in here, trillium is going by, but you can see the size of the plants and how robust they are. There’s a basswood. A little basswood, that would be candy to a deer.

COHEN: Outside the exclosure where the deer roam free the plants are short and sparse, but the wildflower decline isn’t unique to this preserve. Scientists are observing a similar trend in many parts of the country. In Maryland and Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, usually in forests near suburban areas where deer populations have increased.

Richard Goodwyn was one of the first presidents of the Nature Conservancy. He says deer have been feeding on the native flora where he lives in southeastern Connecticut for at least twenty years.

GOODWYN: I have a list here of some of the things that I have observed that have been chewed up in flower and then not in flower.

COHEN: The 94-year old botanist sits on a living room chair and picks up a lined piece of paper. In careful script he’s noted the nearly 25 species deer are eating in Bernibum Preserve in East Hatham, his home since 1956. Lillies and orchids are the hardest hit.

GOODWYN: Wood lily, is one, when it’s gone, I haven’t seen it in flower. Ladies’ tresses is another orchid, little white orchid that grows out in the fields, full bloom, then chewed up.

COHEN: Without flowers, a plant can’t produce seeds and without seeds there are no new plants. Goodwyn is worried about the loss of biodiversity and he says with fewer flowers the world would also lose a bit of its beauty.

GOODWYN: It’s an emotional thing and a lot of people would feel very deprived if they weren’t able to go out in the woods and they weren’t able to pick a flower. And if you have a diversity of flowers, it makes the whole thing much more interesting.

COHEN: Back at the Mianus River Gorge, Rod Christie tells me he doesn’t want to lose the preserve’s diversity of flowers. But right now, deer seem to have the upper hand. As if on cue, one makes a cameo appearance.

CHRISTIE: There’s a deer coming up around the edge there (laughter).


CHRISTIE: That’s a white-tail deer actually looking at us right now, outside the exclosure, fortunately.

COHEN: Looking at us with those big, Bambi-like eyes, raising the question of what to do about all these deer. Some states like Connecticut, have a long hunting season and allow hunters to use bait in some areas. Birth control for deer is still under research. It’s illegal to trap and move them. At a nature preserve hunting is perhaps the most effective method, but it’s controversial. Christie says the least intrusive and the most effective option is to use predators.

CHRISTIE: We’re trying to encourage coyote populations, bobcat populations, is it possible to reduce the deer population to a level that the coyotes could keep it under control.

COHEN: However the deer are managed inside and outside the preserve, fewer of them could give wildflowers the chance to rebound. For Living on Earth, I’m Nancy Cohen in Bedford, New York.




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