It's not well known to urban environmentally conscious people but rural people know that deer are a lot like rats - they will eat everything if you don't stop them.

Because state forests are part of a political machine, various political lobbying has blocked biology and that led to an overabundance of deer and decades of damage.

But regulated deer hunts in Indiana state parks helped damaged forests recover nicely. The big win, found analysis of a 17-year-long Indiana Department of Natural Resources policy of organized hunts in state parks, was for native tree seedlings, herbs and wildflowers once rendered scarce by deer. 

Michael Jenkins, associate professor of forest ecology at Purdue, said that while hunting may be unpopular with people who don't understand nature, it is a cost-effective means of promoting the growth and richness of Indiana's natural areas. When hunters buy licenses, they do the job state employees would have to do, and the money they spend is rolled back into conservation efforts. Hunters also spend money locally in lots of ways. It is a valuable conservation tool in states like Pennsylvania.

White-tailed deer browse in West Lafayette, Ind. There is a reason
farmers in deer-heavy states are allowed to shoot them. They will
eat everything. Credit: Tom Campbell

"We can't put nature in a glass dome and think it's going to regulate itself," Jenkins said. "Because our actions have made the natural world the way it is, we have an obligation to practice stewardship to maintain ecological balance."

Indiana state parks had hunting bans in place but by the 1990s, white-tailed deer populations in parks had swelled so much that that many species of native wildflowers such as trillium and lilies were wiped out and all that was left was invasive species and plants not favored by deer. Oak and ash tree seedlings gave way to trees such as pawpaw.  Not hunting really threw nature out of balance. The health of deer in state parks also dwindled as their food sources shrank.

To check the overabundant deer populations, the DNR introduced controlled hunts in state parks in 1993, with most parks adopting the strategy by 1996.

"Hunting in natural areas is controversial," Jenkins said. "But when deer are overabundant, they start to have undeniable negative impacts on the ecosystem."

Working with Christopher Webster, a Michigan Tech University professor, Jenkins and then-master's student Lindsay Jenkins (no relation) tested the effectiveness of the hunting program by comparing the amount of plant cover in 108 plots in state parks and historically hunted areas with 1996-97 levels. They found that total plant cover in state parks more than doubled from 1996-97 to 2010. Herbs such as asters, violets and goldenrods increased from about 20 percent to 32 percent cover, and percent cover of grasses rose from 1 to 3 percent. Tree seedlings jumped from about 2 percent to about 13 percent of total plant cover, a finding that suggests when older trees die out, there will be younger trees to replace them, Jenkins said. 

"With heavy populations of deer, tree seedlings often don't have a chance to survive," he said. "In those situations, the forest could lose its ability to reproduce itself and eventually cease to be healthy."

The study also showed that the hunting program led to the recovery of native species and discouraged the spread of invasive and exotic species, said Lindsay Jenkins.

"We saw a striking improvement in the quality and diversity of the forest understory in state parks compared with conditions before the hunting program," she said. "The deer management program is having a clear, beneficial impact on Indiana parks and could serve as a good example for nature preserves with overabundant deer in other states."