Deer management program yields multiple benefits at Allerton

A program to benefit natural areas by reducing deer numbers also brings in much appreciated volunteer help
December 10, 2015
 

Nate Beccue

As someone who values the U of I’s Allerton Park and Retreat Center—especially for the natural areas—I’m happy to report this week on an ongoing effort that has really paid off there, the deer management program begun in 2004. “Deer management” here refers primarily to reducing the number of deer inhabiting the natural areas through carefully regulated hunting. That’s an archery season that runs from the beginning of October through the end of January, with hunters in the remote wooded areas of the park.

Prior to the start of the program, deer had grown hyper abundant in and around Allerton. A 2004 aerial survey counted a record high of 730 individuals, which is about four times the number such an area can support without significant damage to native ecosystems.

When deer occupy a natural area so densely, they degrade it by by consuming all of the plant life in reach. They seem to be especially fond of native woodland flowers and the seedlings of native trees. Unfortunately, they do not have much taste for invasive species like multiflora rose and Asian bush honeysuckle.

The management program brought the deer population down very effectively, thanks in large part to a policy requiring hunters to take a doe before going after antlered deer. Surveys in recent years show a deer population that ranges from about 100 to 150, which is comparable to benchmarks from the early 1980s.

The ecological benefits of the deer reduction program are the subject of continuing study, which means they haven’t all been quantified yet. Some things are clear, though. As the number of individual deer has declined, the health of the herd has improved, as measured by the reproductive rate. Native woodland flowers—such as snow trillium, shooting star, and bloodroot—are more common again, giving visitors a reason to get out and walk the trails in April. Even the native honeysuckle species, which had become difficult to find, are thriving and expanding.

The positive impacts of reducing the deer population at Allerton extend beyond the natural areas of the park, too. Fewer deer there means fewer deer-vehicle accidents on the surrounding roads; the average number per year has declined by more than half over the past decade. Deer damage to crops in the surrounding agricultural fields is also down significantly.

All of this is great news according to Nate Beccue, who oversees the deer reduction program in his role as natural areas manager at Allerton. But he is equally eager to call attention to the other way it benefits the park, which is through the investment it requires of hunters. In order to obtain one of the 65 permits issued there, hunters are required to pass a proficiency test first, and then to volunteer 30 hours of work a year.

If you’ve used the boardwalk that takes people out over the spring that feeds the mansion pond, you’ve enjoyed the work of the hunter volunteer who built it. If you’ve admired the fresh paint on the music barn—or just about any other building—at Allerton, you’ve seen the work of hunter volunteers. Hunter volunteers also help to fill the ranks of those directing traffic at music events, setting up and taking down chairs for weddings, and doing the never-ending job of invasive plant removal.

Since the program began, Beccue reports, hunters have contributed an amazing 18,000 volunteer hours. He says, “They’re here first in the morning and last in the evening, almost like a third shift for us. With all we have to protect it’s a great comfort knowing they’re out there.”

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