Vegetative legacy of a protected deer herd in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Overabundant deer populations pose significant challenges to the conservation of native plant communities. We examined the effects of a protected white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimm.) population on forest plant communities in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cove deer herd reached 43 deer km -2 at its peak in the late 1970s. While current densities are somewhat lower, the diversity and coverage of many understory species remains greatly reduced. To elucidate the influence of contemporary deer browsing, an exclosure study was established in 1997. Ten 10-m × 10-m sample plots were randomly located at three sites, half of which per site were exclosed. Understory vegetation on all 30 plots was intensively sampled in August 2004. While the diversity and richness of herbaceous species was similar in exclosures and controls following eight years of deer exclusion, exclosures contained significantly more diverse sapling layers (tree species < 2 m in height). Correspondingly, exclosures contained significantly greater sapling densities than control plots (P < 0.001). Herbaceous and sapling layer composition varied between exclosures and controls. Forbs, vines, and low woody shrubs were consistently more abundant within exclosures than control plots. Graminoids (both native and exotic) dominated both exclosures and controls, but typically had greater relative abundance on control plots. Given the modest recovery of the herbaceous layer and the persistence of non-preferred browse species following eight years of deer exclusion, plant community recovery would be slow and uncertain even if the density of deer within the Cove was reduced.

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Natural Areas Journal