Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy in Forest Science (PhD)
College, School or Department Name
School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science
Christopher Raymond Webster
Tsuga canadensis (eastern hemlock) is a highly shade-tolerant, late-successional, and long-lived conifer species found throughout eastern North America. It is most often found in pure or nearly pure stands, because highly acidic and nutrient poor forest floor conditions are thought to favor T. canadensis regeneration while simultaneously limiting the establishment of some hardwood species with greater nutrient requirements. Once a common species, T. canadensis is currently experiencing widescale declines across its range. The hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) is decimating the population across its eastern distribution. Across the Upper Great Lakes region, where the adelgid is currently being held at bay by cold winter temperatures, T. canadensis has been experiencing failures in regeneration attributed, in part, to herbivory by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Deer utilize T. canadensis stands as winter habitat in areas of high snow depth. Tsuga canadensis, once a major component of these forests, currently exists at just a fraction of its pre-settlement abundance due to historic logging and contemporary forest management practices, and what remains is found in small remnant patches surrounded by second- and third-growth deciduous forests. The deer population across the region, however, is likely double that of pre-European settlement times. In this dissertation I explore the relationship between white-tailed deer use of T. canadensis as winter habitat and the effect this use is having on regeneration and forest succession.
For this research I quantified stand composition and structure and abiotic variables of elevation and snow depth in 39 randomly selected T. canadensis stands from across the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I also quantified composition and the configuration of the landscapes surrounding these stands. I measured relative deer use of T. canadensis stands as pellet group piles deposited in each stand during each of three consecutive winters, 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08. The results of this research suggest that deer use of T. canadensis stands as winter habitat is influenced primarily by snow depth, elevation, and the composition and configuration of the greater landscapes surrounding these stands. Specifically, stands with more heterogeneous landscapes surrounding them (i.e., a patchy mosaic of conifer, deciduous, and open cover) had higher relative deer use than stands surrounded by homogenous deciduous forest cover. Additionally, the intensity of use and the number of stands used was greater in years with higher average snow depth. Tsuga canadensis regeneration in these stands was negatively associated with deer use and Acer saccharum (sugar maple) basal area. Of the 39 stands, 17 and 22 stands had no T. canadensis regeneration in small and large sapling categories, respectively. Acer saccharum was the most common understory tree species, and the importance of A. saccharum in the understory (stems < 10 cm dbh) of the stands was positively associated with overstory A. saccharum dominance. Tsuga canadensis establishment was associated with high-decay coarse woody debris and moss, and deciduous leaf litter inputs in these stands may be limiting access to these important microsites. Furthermore, A. saccharum is more tolerant to the effects of deer herbivory than T. canadensis, giving A. saccharum a competitive advantage in stands being utilized as winter habitat by deer. My research suggests that limited microsite availability, in conjunction with deer herbivory, may be leading to an erosion in T. canadensis patch stability and an altered successional trajectory toward one of A. saccharum dominance, an alternately stable climax species.
Witt, Jill Christine, "Patch selection by wintering white-tailed deer : consequences for eastern hemlock regeneration at local and landscape scales", Dissertation, Michigan Technological University, 2010.