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Too many deer in the forest

A white-tailed deer buck walking. Image courtesy of James T. Anderson.
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There are so many white-tailed deer in the eastern forests of North America that wild American ginseng and other forest-floor plants are in danger of going extinct, new research suggests.

A white-tailed deer fawn in spring. Image courtesy of James B. McGraw.
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Wild ginseng root is thought by some people to provide a long life and energy to those who ingest it. Unfortunately, wild populations of American ginseng may not be long-lived, due to rising numbers of white-tailed deer. The deer eat ginseng's green leaves, flowers and red berries faster than the plants grow back.

Most, if not all wild American ginseng populations will disappear in the next 100 years if deer populations do not decrease, according to new research in the 11 February 2005 issue of the journal Science.

Ginseng plants were much more common, and white-tailed deer were much less common, when Europeans first arrived in North America. The famous pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone made more money selling ginseng than he did trading the furs of wild animals, according to Science author James McGraw from West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.

Daniel Boone loaded up a boat so full with ginseng roots that it sunk.

A white-tailed deer foraging on grass. Image courtesy of James T. Anderson.
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So, he and his party went back into the woods and collected more, McGraw explained. Today, you could never find enough wild American ginseng roots in one area to fill a boat. And, in 100 years, you might not find groups of wild ginseng plants anywhere in the forests of eastern North America.

The scientists studied seven ginseng patches in West Virginia for five years. They found that deer eat large numbers of ginseng plants. You can tell a deer has eaten the plant by looking at how the stem is chewed off at an angle.

The conservation biologists analyzed their deer browsing information with mathematical equations called "models." Results from the models suggest that there is a 95 percent chance that all of the known wild American ginseng populations will disappear in the next 100 years.

To give ginseng the best chance of surviving, deer populations in forests with ginseng need to drop. Humans will need to help lower the number of deer in the woods of eastern North America. How do you control deer numbers? One approach, according to McGraw, would be for hunters to go after female white-tailed deer and not just the big males.


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