Long-term response of spring flora to chronic herbivory and deer exclusion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Chronic herbivory by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmerman) can have profound impacts on the function and structure of forest ecosystems. We examined the combined influence of intense herbivory associated with a deer population eruption and chronic herbivory by the post eruption population on the spring flora of Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During the 1970s the deer population reached a peak of 43 deer per km2, from which it has slowly declined in recent decades. To examine the influence of intense herbivory, we compared the abundance and flowering rates of early flowering plants in Cades Cove to a nearby reference site with similar bedrock geology, vegetation, and disturbance history but contrasting history of deer abundance. Our results suggest that significant changes (p ≤ 0.05) in the diversity, evenness, and species richness of the spring flora occurred during the eruptive phase. Trillium spp. and other liliaceous species appeared to be disproportionately impacted. Comparisons between control and exclosure plots established after the deer population eruption indicate that recovery has been largely restricted to species that were able to persist under intense herbivory. These species have increased in number in exclosures, suggesting continued impacts by deer on the plant community outside the exclosures. Little to no recolonization by browse sensitive species was observed. Consequently, to restore the natural diversity of early flowering plants once present in Cades Cove, active restoration may be necessary in addition to maintaining deer densities below current levels.

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Biological Conservation