Furry Pine Bush Residents

The butterfly is not the only resident of the Pine Bush. Little furry animals also reside in the Pine Bush. I had no idea how many different types of moles, voles, mice and other tiny creatures there are-or how important they are to the ecosystem of a forest. Rezsin and I saw an article about voles in the Pine Bush in the paper, and just had to find out about these small Pine Bush residents.

Larger creatures than voles live in the P.B., including deer. The concerns about possibility of damage to the P.B. ecosystem by deer are important to consider. Ed.

The Pine Bush-Home to Voles

by Lynne Jackson, July/Aug. 92

During a state-wide survey of mammals, NYS biologist Paul Steblein was surprised to find the red-backed vole in the Pine Bush, an animal that is usually only found in high-altitudes in dense forests.

Around 1900, only 25% of New York's land was forested. Now, nearly 70% of the land is forested, encouraging the revival and spread of many mammal species. Paul Steblein who is with the NYS Biological Survey, is two years into a research project to survey the mammals living in New York's woodlands. This project will look at what mammals live in New York today and will study how the animal populations have changed as the landscape in New York has changed. This research about how re-forestation has affected animal populations should provide valuable information to help guide wildlife officials to manage state lands and other designated wildlife areas.
This work may have relevance beyond New York's borders. The dynamics of the de-forestation and re-forestation may be relevant to other areas, like the Amazon, that are under-going great change.

Steblein believes the red-backed vole is not a recent immigrant to the Pine Bush. Because the Pine Bush is surrounded by cleared areas, it is unlikely the vole could have found its way to the area recently. Steblein speculates the vole has made its home among the Pitch Pine trees for more than 100 years. The vole, and other animals that inhabit ecological "islands" such as the Pine Bush, should allow biologists to better understand how forest fragmentation has affected mammal populations.

Mammals of New York State

by Lynne Jackson, May/June 92

Dr. Paul Steblein spends a lot of time looking for little furry animals. He brought his slides and enthusiasm about his search to the March 19 Save the Pine Bush dinner. Dr. Steblein works for the NYS Biological Survey of the NYS Museum and spoke to an attentive audience about rare and endangered mammals of New York.

The first New York mammal survey was done in New York in 1834. According to Dr. Steblein, surprisingly little work has been done between then and now. He and his co-workers are now hard at work on a mammal survey of the state. In their mammal survey, they are trying to hit areas where the information in scarce, and are trying to cover the entire state.

The mammal survey is being conducted because there is not enough current information to adequately manage the mammals in New York. There are some 40,000 species to catalog, and many of the smaller species are often overlooked.
Dr. Steblein concentrates most of his research on very tiny creatures . Perhaps not as romantic as the big cats, but essential for the survival of ecosystems, moles, voles, shrews and mice were the topic of discussion.

Star-nosed moles have electric sensors, and moles are the diggers. The hairy-tailed mole lives in the sandy parts of the Pine Bush.

Shrews can eco-locate like bats, and some have poisonous saliva which can kill mice. They are smaller than mice and eat insects. The pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal in North America, and it lives in the Capital District.

The least shrew is the rarest in New York State. Unfortunately, none of the shrews are protected. They must eat every two hours or starve. Shrews eat four times their weight in insects every day!

Voles have short tails and small eyes and feet. Voles are like "cigars with legs" and are designed for tunnelling through grass. The red-backed vole needs lots of water (they seem to have poor kidneys). Though they are usually found in highland forests, they live in ravines in the Pine Bush. The red-backed voles have probably made their home in the Pine Bush for more than 100 years. The Pine Bush is surrounded by development, which the vole would have a hard time crossing. The vole is only found in the ravines, not on the sand dunes, due to its need for water. They eat fungi and rotting logs.

There are about 20 to 25 species of mammals in the Pine Bush including shrews moles, mice, hares, squirrels, flying squirrels and white-tailed deer. A large number of deer can have a heavy impact on biological systems. The Pine Bush has no rocky areas to protect small mammals, deer will strip the lower vegetation, and the small mammals can't survive.

Mice-jumping mice-deer mice-eastern woodrat-play an important role in the ecosystem. They eat fungi and spread the spores. Fungi has a symbiotic relationship with trees; they collect moisture for the trees and the trees feed them sugar.

Changes in the land affect these small mammals. In NY, the tundra turned to forest 10,000 years ago, then the forest to farmland (in 1900, only 25% of New York was forest) and now the forest has come back (70% of New York is now forested). New stands of forest are a desert for these small mammals, as they offer no place to hide and no food. As Dr. Steblein says, "You can replant the trees, but not the forest."
New York is a model of de-forestation and re-forestation. Dr. Steblein hopes that his research will not only benefit New York, but also other forests, such as the Amazon, which are undergoing dramatic change.

The Deer Problem

Stripping the Pine Bush

by Daniel W. Van Riper, Oct./Nov. 92

Across the state, the deer population is exploding. The Pine Bush is particularly sensitive to this problem, being an island ecology already subject to intense pressure from developers, mismanagement, and invasions by foreign species. So far, overgrazing by deer has not been a problem, but it could become disastrous if over population remains unchecked.

Deer have always been a part of the Pine Bush, and certainly belong there today. For thousands of years, large predators such as wolves kept the population in check, and Native Americans hunted deer for food. European settlement may have wiped out local populations until this century, when deer filtered back into the region from the Catskills and Adirondacks.

In the Aug. 92 issue of Natural History magazine is an intriguing article called Must We Shoot Deer to Save Nature? written by Jared Diamond. It describes Fontenelle Forest, a 1300 acre island reserve near Omaha, Nebraska, created by a citizen's group called the Fontenelle Forest Assn. This group is dedicated to preserving this climax forest of oaks, hickories, and lindens in its natural state. Management policy is hands off, all species are protected.

Like the Pine Bush, Fontenelle Forest is an island preserve of a once vast wilderness, near a medium sized urban center and ringed by urban development. Yet for all the dedication and good intentions of the citizen's group, Fontenelle Forest is dying, unable to regenerate itself.

The author describes, "I saw no seedlings... The sight felt like visiting an apparently thriving country and suddenly realizing that it was inhabited by old people, and that most of the infants and children had died. While I expected to find dense thickets under the scattered crowns of the great trees, the forest understory was actually so open that I could walk through most of it. Most of the saplings were species like ironwood and hackberry...which are pioneers in disturbed environments."
The reason for this is easy to find. "The deer contribute to preventing Fontenelle Forest's regeneration by eating acorns and nuts, from which new oaks and hickories would sprout, and by browsing shrubs and low saplings". Birds and butterflies, which depend on the undergrowth for food, are declining rapidly. "The forest understory is changing... into a haven for 'deer-proof' plants, such as poisonous snakeroot and stinging nettles".

The Pine Bush could be described as a large spread of underbrush. Although there seems to be no study of which plants in the Pine Bush deer prefer to eat, starving deer eat everything within reach that is not poisonous or covered with thorns. If the deer consume the blue lupine, the sole food of the Karner Blue butterfly, the deer could quickly make extinct our favorite insect, much to the delight of Albany's politicians. While the lupine and the butterfly are heartily adapted to surviving raging wildfires, they have no known defenses against starving deer.

Management of the deer population is clearly needed but there are no easy solutions. Here are some choices:

1) Hunting. Having people pay for the privilege of bagging a buck every fall is the simplest answer. Yet because the Pine Bush is ringed by human habitations, discharging of firearms is illegal in both the Albany and Guilderland parts of the PB. Bowhunting is legal with the proper state permits, but not within 500 feet of a dwelling and not where posted by a landowner. Mostly, hunting is discouraged.
It is precisely because of the decline of hunting as a sport that the deer population has taken off in the state. Hiring professionals to reduce the deer herd is an outrageous expenditure, especially when every penny is still needed to protect the Pine Bush from developers and politicians.

2) Removal. About 12 years ago, I witnessed how deer ravaged Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, California. One could not turn around without encountering a deer, the dumb things would walk up to people expecting handouts. Except for tall trees, the island was practically stripped bare of vegetation. I watched park rangers distributing bales of feed to prevent starvation.

A public outcry prevented the rangers from culling the herd by selective hunting. Instead, in an operation well in excess of a million dollars, hundreds of deer were sedated, transported by helicopter to the mainland, and trucked to wilderness areas in New Mexico and Arizona, where they were fitted with transmitters and closely monitored. Within three months, all deer were dead, unable to cope with an alien environment. Today there are no deer on Angel Island.

Even if money could be found, and a place to put the deer, there is nothing to prevent deer from immediately moving back into the Pine Bush. Removal would become an annual event.

3) Predators. In many ways re-introducing large predators is the ideal solution. As with hunting, human habitation is the problem. Predators originally were wiped out because they were in competition with humans. Today, safety is the main concern.

Nature seems to have taken a hand here, as coyotes have reportedly come down from the mountains following the deer. These elusive, often heard but rarely seen canines routinely make deer kills. They have never been known to molest humans, but new residents to the Pine Bush are warned by the old timers to keep an eye on their dogs and cats, since coyotes are said to have little sympathy for house pets.

4) Birth Control. This has actually been tried in some places, with mixed results. Again, there is outrageous expense involved. Besides, is it at all humane to go out every year to hunt these animals with dartguns, inject them with drugs that humans are routinely thrown in prison for using, and then poke and prod them indecorously? It almost seems less cruel to put them out of their miseries.

5) Fire. Up until the 1970's, wildfires periodically destroyed and rejuvenated the Pine Bush. Certainly these wildfires killed some deer and chased the rest away long enough for indigenous plants to grow back. Today, wildfires are suppressed and limited controlled burns have little effect on the deer.

A deer management policy must be decided upon and implemented, or the Pine Bush will end up like Fontenelle Forest, or worse. The Pine Bush Management Commission, which spent a ridiculous amount of time deciding what color trail markers to use, hardly even mentioned the deer problem. It may be necessary for SPB to formulate a policy and force the state and local governments to implement it. After all, SPB is the biggest reason why the Pine Bush still exists, so the responsibility for direction lies with us. Perhaps the Nature Conservancy, which holds much Pine Bush land in trust, could be called upon to lend their experience to finding a solution.

Ignoring the problem is in itself a management policy. The only way that a hands-off policy could possibly work is to remove all humans from in and around the Pine Bush and hope that things go back to the way they were. This won't happen because humans have become part of the Pine Bush ecosystem. The best that we can do is learn to manage the diverse elements of the Pine Bush so that all living things can benefit.


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