Pattern and drivers of white-tailed deer herbivory on tree saplings

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) populations are impacting long-term regeneration across eastern United States forests. Deer distribution and resulting herbivory patterns are variable across a landscape due to habitat patchiness and topography. It is poorly understood how features associated with topography control deer herbivory. We examined the heterogeneity of deer herbivory as it affects sapling densities across a single forest-type landscape on the Cumberland Plateau. The 1242 hectare site represented a peninsula of tableland that transitioned from developed land to forest and was surrounded on three sides by a bluff, irregularly punctuated by drainages.

We examined the spatial variability of deer impacts on sapling density and modeled the relative importance of plateau accessibility features related to topography, proximity to edge, and deer culling as predictors of sapling variation. We used a stratified random design to sample sapling density across the landscape in 2012 and 2015. The intensity of deer herbivory on saplings varied, with the fewest saplings in forests surrounded by residential development. Our model predicted that plateau accessibility measures best determined sapling densities, followed by distance from edge and deer culling measures. Our results suggest that herbivory impacts may not be homogeneous in a contiguous uniform landscape if there are topographic barriers.

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