WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Regulated deer hunts in Indiana state parks have helped restore the health of forests suffering from decades of damage caused by overabundant populations of white-tailed deer, a Purdue study shows.
A research team led by Michael Jenkins, associate professor of forest ecology, found that a 17-year-long Indiana Department of Natural Resources policy of organizing hunts in state parks has successfully spurred the regrowth of native tree seedlings, herbs and wildflowers rendered scarce by browsing deer.
Jenkins said that while hunting may be unpopular with some, it is an effective means of promoting the growth and richness of Indiana's natural areas.
"We can't put nature in a glass dome and think it's going to regulate itself," he 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 historically did not allow hunting. But by the 1990s, white-tailed deer populations in parks had swelled to such size that many species of native wildflowers such as trillium and lilies largely disappeared, replaced by wild ginger and exotic species such as garlic mustard and Japanese stiltgrass, plants not favored by deer. Oak and ash tree seedlings gave way to highly deer-resistant or unpalatable trees such as pawpaw.
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 and Purdue alumnus, Jenkins and then-master's student Lindsay Jenkins (no relation) tested the effectiveness of th
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