By Shawn Perich
Looking at the young red pine in the backyard, my first thought was, not again! A buck had rubbed his antlers against the trunk, removing a sizeable patch of bark, though not enough, hopefully, to kill the tree.
This was the third time this particular tree was ravaged by deer. A half-dozen years ago, I had removed the protective fence surrounding the tree, thinking it had grown tall enough to avoid the depredations of deer. The critters left the tree alone throughout winter until a March morning when I discovered a hungry whitetail had had chewed the leader down to a stub as thick as my thumb. The fence want back up as soon as the snow melted and remained in place until 2013. Then the tree was at least 12 feet tall, so it was certainly above the reach of a browsing deer. Nevertheless, by spring whitetails pruned all of the tree’s lower branches.
In my yard, battles with deer are never-ending. With the exception of balsam fir and white spruce, every tree I plant on my property must be surrounded by a fence, first to protect it from browsing and then, once it develops a sturdy trunk, to prevent bucks from polishing their antlers. I’ve learned from experience that anything less than complete protection leaves me with stubby shrubs that are pruned by deer every winter.
My home is in the North Shore’s traditional deer yard, the zone within a mile of Lake Superior. Every winter, deer migrate from inland areas to the south-facing ridge rising from the shore, where severe cold and snow are moderated by the influence of the big lake. Most of the people on the North Shore live close to the lake, too, so the deer benefit from human-created habitat (backyards, gardens and the like), as well as from intentional deer feeding.
The abundance of deer makes it difficult to grow trees, especially native white pine and white cedar. Adding to the problem is that many areas of the North Shore forest, which grew back in paper birch, balsam and aspen after pioneer logging era, are now past maturity and littered with dead and dying trees. Any new forest growth is stymied by hungry deer. The result is expansive grassy areas with sparse trees.
A group of North Shore public land managers and private landowners have formed the North Shore Collaborative in an attempt to restore pines and other conifers. Recently, I had an opportunity to tour an area on the edge of Cascade State Park where pine and cedar are being planted in the heart of the deer yard. All of the saplings are surrounded by protective fencing. Project managers also hope to try bud capping—stapling a paper envelope over a sapling’s leader bud—as a way to stymie deer. Whatever method is used to establish young conifers in a deer yard is time-consuming and expensive.
Some of the work is funded with a $400,000 Conservation Partners Legacy (CPL) grant awarded to Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association, one of the Collaborative partners, by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Funding will be used for reforestation of federal and state lands in the Spruce Creek and Cascade River watersheds and at the Sugarloaf Cove natural area, all in Cook County.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to work with partners on projects to restore a healthy forest at multiple locations on the North Shore,” said Molly Thompson, Sugarloaf’s executive director.
The grant allows land managers to plant pines and cedars on hundreds of acres. The conifer growth will also create shelter for wintering deer, which may seem ironic, because deer and even moose were sparse along the North Shore prior to the pioneer logging era. Instead the area was dominated by woodland caribou. While they are cursed by some ecologists and foresters, whitetails are likely here to stay on the North Shore. Thompson says the challenge is to manage for an abundance of deer that satisfies hunters, but allows native vegetation to be restored.
Most of the work the Collaborative is doing is based on forest restoration rather than harvest. And, given their long lifespans and limited abundance, it is unlikely the white pine and white cedar planted today will be considered merchantable timber in the future. However, also in Cook County the Minnesota DNR is in the midst of putting up a “super sale” of an estimated 25,000 cords of primarily aspen and birch. At least a portion of the sale would occur on the North Shore ridge.
As timber markets lagged following the crash of the housing market, the DNR has seen a decline in selling timber along the North Shore. Kent Jacobson, business consultant for the Division of Forestry, said the large sale, which will involve the harvest of about 1,600 acres, may entice larger customers, such as mills, to go after the wood. Keeping the harvest in a relatively small geographic area will make harvesting more economical for the operator. The forest regeneration after the harvest could be attractive moose and deer habitat.
Most of the proposed harvest will occur along the Jackson Lake Forest Road in eastern Cook County near the border with the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. Jacobson says he has talked to both the reservation forester and the U.S. Forest Service about the DNR project and what opportunities might exist to take advantage of access roads created by the state sale and again, make the sales economically attractive to operators.
Just how much merchantable timber is available for harvest and restoration is somewhat open to question, because some of the aspen and birch is very old and falling down. Steep slopes and rough terrain may hinder both access and harvest. Jacobson says the sale will avoid extensive stands of sugar maples and lowland conifers, as well as white pine and white cedar. Other disciplines within DNR have had an opportunity to weigh in on the sale and suggest places where harvest shouldn’t occur. The reduction is timber markets, of which harvesting is dependent, has hampered the DNR’s long term desired forest management objectives including those related to biological diversity, forest composition, age-class distribution, wildlife habitat, forest health and timber productivity. Some of these birch stands being treated will provide opportunities for pine restoration along with regenerating those acres suitable to young birch.
If the sale goes through as planned, nearly 2,000 truckloads of aspen, birch and other species will be hauled from the forest over the five year term of the sale, primarily along the Arrowhead Trail to Hwy 61. Some of the birch may be stockpiled in old gravel pits along Hwy 61 so the sugars in the wood may cure. A Wisconsin mill extracts the sugars as a byproduct called black liquor that is used as a chewing gum sweetener and is also used in cosmetics.
The DNR has called in outside help to appraise the proposed stands this fall. Much of the proposed area is School Trust Fund land, which means a portion of the sale proceeds go to education. Jacobson said the School Trust lands were not a primary factor in selecting the location for the super sale. The DNR hopes to have the sale available for the Two Harbors area auction in January.