Sunday, August 17, 2008

MARYLAND NEWS: Deer Versus Biodiversity at a Unique Serpentine Barren

As fragile ecosystems go, Soldiers Delight might be Maryland's Faberge egg -- rare, beautiful and valuable.

Walk along its 7 miles of trails and see rare plants, at least 39 varieties, and insects.

"You can't step off the trail without stepping on something rare," Wayne Tyndall, the state restoration ecologist, says during a recent hike.

So we tread lightly, putting our feet on clumps of grass as we hopscotch our way to view delicate Eastern Blazing Star, 3 inches high with little round buds about to blossom into purple flowers.

But we had better look quickly, Tyndall advises.

"It's getting hammered. It's being eaten before it even flowers," he says. "The deer eat new shoots because they're tender."

That's the way it is for so much of Soldiers Delight's flora: 15 wildflowers on the state's endangered and threatened list and seven grasses on the endangered list.

What scientists think of as rare, deer see as an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

And that's a big problem.

Labeled a "Natural Environment Area" by the state, Soldiers Delight is 1,900 acres of serpentine barren located between Owings Mills and Liberty Reservoir in western Baltimore County.

Serpentine is a bedrock that began its life as magma oozing from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean about 500 million years ago. Soldiers Delight is the largest remaining serpentine barren in the eastern United States, so it attracts a lot of living things that find it tough going elsewhere. It is Maryland's richest concentration of rare and endangered species.

Keeping the area safe requires constant battles, some more successful than others.

Take, for example, the invasion of the invasive species. Over decades, groves of Virginia pines took root, followed by massive patches of greenbrier, both of which threaten rare grasslands. But in recent years, the Department of Natural Resources has fought back with axes and fire to restore the land, which allowed the oak trees to flourish as they did decades ago.

"We started seeing the oaks expand, and we started getting excited," Tyndall says. "Now, the oaks are on hold."

What has stopped the oaks in their tracks are deer, eight times as many as the area should have.

The deer have eaten every oak seedling in sight, leaving behind an area with mature trees and saplings but no next generation in the pipeline.

That's bad news for a species of rare butterfly that uses only oak saplings to lay its eggs and complete its life cycle. (I'm not naming the butterfly because history shows that some collectors will swoop in and turn the entire population of rare critters into an extinct one.)

In a double whammy for the butterflies, browsing deer are digging up the living quarters of Allegheny mound ants and using them for salt licks. The aggressive ants, attracted by a sugary secretion from the butterfly caterpillars, provide protection from predatory wasps and birds when the caterpillars venture out to feed. Without their bodyguards, the caterpillars are as dead as Sonny Corleone at the causeway toll booth.

It gets worse. Even if the caterpillars make it to adult stage, the deer have eaten the wildflowers that are a major food source.

"Oak suppression, ant suppression, wildflower suppression -- what's a butterfly to do?" Tyndall asks.

Wildflower devastation also hurts migrating hummingbirds searching for fuel. The loss of Eastern Blazing Star is bad for songbirds that feast when the flowers turn to seed. Sassafras seedlings are being chewed, too.

In another area of Soldiers Delight just a stone's throw from Interstate 795, deer have cleared out all the small oaks with the efficiency of a wood chipper.

"We're looking at a dead forest. These trees aren't going to life forever, and when they die ... " Tyndall's voice trails off.

The death of oak trees has opened the door for invasive species, such as Chinese sumac -- called "Trees of Heaven" by nurseries once eager to sell them -- and Japanese barberry, a prolific and popular spiny shrub with red berries.

Efforts by volunteers and students from Stevenson University to repel the invaders have had limited success.

"Do you see any hiding places for box turtles or raccoons? It's pretty sterile. There's no cover," says Glenn Therres, who leads DNR's endangered species conservation work.

Despite some fuss from hunting haters, the state began allowing archers in two remote sections of Soldiers Delight. But in two seasons, bow hunters have taken fewer than 40 deer, not enough to slow the burgeoning population.

"If you don't put the hunters where the deer are, you're not going to have a successful hunt," says Paul Peditto, head of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service.

So wildlife managers are drafting a new proposal that could include a short-term managed shotgun hunt in late winter, when plants are dormant and trail use is low. Similar hunts are used at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County and Susquehanna State Park near Havre de Grace. The proposal is expected to be ready by mid-September.

Peditto says it's not realistic to think other measures will work at Soldiers Delight.

"It's one thing to be able to fence in a few dozen plants. It's another to fence in an entire thousand-acre ecosystem. Where do I start?" he says.

Tyndall says the clock is running on Soldiers Delight's future.

"We still have a chance here," Tyndall says. "But time is limited. You reach a point where you just have to walk away."

Source: Baltimore Sun