Deer-Friendly Forests

Deer-Friendly Forests

An Interview With California Biologist Dave Smith

You can't see the deer for the trees in many north state forests. To get things changed, hunters need to look at the big picture.

By John Higley

Although deer hunting in California can be better in some years than in others, most hunters with a few decades under their belts recognize the fact that even at its best deer hunting these days is not what it was as recently as the late 1960s and early 1970s. Biologists will tell you that deer herds throughout the state were at their highest peak during that time frame.

Today, however, deer herds have declined in nearly every region of the state, resulting in smaller annual harvest figures and low tag quotas for many deer hunt zones. If you put in for the annual drawing for deer tags, you know all about low tag quotas, which were first tried in Zone X-5b in 1978.

Of course, there are many reasons for the decline, and it would take a book on deer management to cover them all in detail. Deer in California reside in many different habitats, each with its special set of circumstances and history. One common denominator, however, is the influence of changing forest technologies on deer in California.

Born and raised in the Redding area, senior wildlife biologist Dave Smith has worked full-time for the Department of Fish and Game in Region 1 since 1969. Now approaching retirement, Smith's name will ring a bell with some California Game & Fish readers who have seen quotes by him in several deer articles published in this periodical. An avid deer hunter for most of his career, Smith obviously relates to everyday hunters in a way we all can understand. (There's another DFG biologist named Dave Smith who works out of the agency's Sacramento headquarters and who actually pens stories for California Game & Fish. These two Smiths are not related.)

While the Redding-based Dave Smith is looking forward to retirement (he's got places to go and things he hasn't yet seen) he does say that his primary job as a unit manager for the DFG was ideal work and always interesting.

DFG biologist Dave Smith shows off a blacktail buck mount. As he prepares for retirement, he's working to change forestry practices. Photo by John Higley

"I never knew what I'd be doing when I came to work," Smith said, "but an awful lot of it involved deer studies, and I always enjoyed the tasks, whether it was habitat assessment work or keeping tabs on deer numbers during annual surveys."

Today, according to Smith, the DFG is taking a different approach in the balancing act of managing deer and all the other wildlife the department is responsible for.

"Here's what I've learned, finally," he said. "My primary interest was in deer, but you can't pick a species and really understand the complexities of the whole ecosystem by focusing on only one critter. We now have endangered species, sensitive species and flagship or indicator species - things we were less concerned with 30 years ago.

"The problem is that everything out there is linked to something else. We see a decline in deer, but they are not the only critters that have gone downhill. What is bad for deer in a forest setting, for example, can also be bad for several bird species. Chipping sparrows come to mind. They are still common, so no one is concerned about them yet, but they are definitely on a downhill slide. They need forests, true, but they also use the same edges that deer like, so if we turn things around a little bit for the sparrows, the deer will benefit, too. That's how it works when we look at the whole picture. I think hunters should worry about the sparrows as well as bucks."

According to Smith, many things that are wrong with forests these days are tied closely to timber management, but the biggest issue to him is the lack of cleansing wildfires.

"There are some horrendous fires these days and there certainly were some in the past," Smith acknowledged, "but through modern fire suppression efforts, which have contributed to fuel build-up, we've changed what most fires used to do. The function of fire, as it usually occurred in the past, is critical for forest ecosystems. In old times, fire encouraged reproduction of a lot of species of vegetation, including the type of stuff deer eat. A lot of the fires way back then burned slowly and low to the ground, removing understory without damaging many mature trees."

Changes in forest density are illustrated in this pair of photographs from the English Peak area of the Klamath National Forest. The top photograph is from 1935 and shows sparse tree coverage with lots of openings and edges where sunlight hits the forest floor and provides the energy necessary to grow browse for deer and non-game species. The bottom photograph, from 1992, demonstrates how trees have supplanted those natural openings and edges. Shade now prevents the growth of grasses and forbs, decreasing the food supply for wildlife. Photographs courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Game.

As Smith pointed out, there certainly were some dense forests with lots of fuel before fire suppression came along, but evidence exists now that points to a very frequent low-intensity fire regime. Throughout history, that was a natural phenomenon. As for the origination of long-ago wildfires, there's evidence to suggest that Native Americans were responsible for at least some of them but the majority were simply the result of lightning strikes.

For 30 years Smith kept spot-kill maps on deer for the Latour area in Shasta County, where mountaintop lightning fires are common. Not surprisingly, he found that most hunters got their bucks on the ridges in and around areas that regularly burned.

"We are just beginning to understand what things were like in pre-settlement days. The first photographs from airplanes clearly show the difference in the forest openings from the time the pictures were taken until now," Smith said. "Today there are fewer openings, meaning meadows and such are farther apart and they aren't as big. You might say that in some places there are too many trees!

"I'm only 60, but folks in their 30s and 40s probably haven't seen anything different than things are now. The truth of the matter is that during the last few decades we've had this conifer fill-in due to the lack of periodic fires that used to keep them thinned out. Look at some photos taken in the same locations a few decades apart and you'll see what I mean."

Smith noted that the most basic thing that gives

everything out there energy, is sunlight and the more trees you have the less sunlight reaches the ground. "Seventh-graders know it but adults seem to have forgotten: All of our energy comes from the ability of these plants to take sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and make sugar - calories, if you will," Smith added. "But when you shade the ground, the energy shifts from clovers, shrubs and wildflowers (most of which deer use) to trees.

"Nothing is really bad," Smith noted, "but we (humans) have disrupted the system which forests need to be real forests. What we're left with are vast expanses of dense trees which people have come to think of as healthy forests but which have little bearing on the way things were in the distant past. Tree ring growth and charcoal deposit studies indicate that some sites had low-intensity fires as often as every 10 to 20 years.

"Remember," Smith said, "forests are not brushlands; forests are trying to be treelands but to get there they used to go through a certain plant succession. When the trees were removed by wildfire or cut-and-run logging, which once was commonplace, the shrubs came back first with the grasses. Normally there was a decade or so during which the land was deer-friendly and good for other edge-dwelling creatures. When a site ages beyond 12 years or so, its ability to support deer drops fast. The shrubs sit there, and still look pretty good to you and me, but their nutrients are depleted after the trees are up and running."

On the ground, here's what he's talking about: Some of the best deer hunting in recent times took place in Siskiyou County's Zone B-6, where hundreds of thousands of acres there were seared by fire in 1987. Now, 16 years later, deer populations and bucks kills recorded by hunters are both in decline from early levels attained in the early 1990s.

"My point is that in this day and age society has a totally different outlook toward forest and wildlife management," Smith said. "And resource managers like (DFG biologists) will fail if we appear to be interested in only a couple of species. That's how I came to develop the idea that we've got to manage for natural systems and processes that will benefit deer and many other species that utilize the same kind of habitat.

"Look, if you're into goshawks you can't just look at their food base without looking further along the food chain. Say a bird eats an insect that relies on manzanita leaves and then the bird is lunch for a hawk. What good is it to focus only on habitat that goshawks need that is no good for the insect the bird ate?"

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