White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) forage selectively, modifying upland forest species composition and in some cases shifting ecosystems to alternative stable states. Few studies, however, have investigated plant selection by deer in bottomland forests. Herbaceous invasive species are common in wetlands and their expansion could be promoted if deer avoid them and preferentially feed on native woody species. We surveyed plant species composition and winter deer browsing in 14 floodplain forest restoration sites along the Upper Mississippi River and tributaries. Tree seedling density declined rapidly with increasing cover of invasive Phalaris arundinacea, averaging less than 1 per m2 in all sites in which the grass was present. Deer browsed ∼46% of available tree seedling stems (branches) at mainland restorations, compared to ∼3% at island sites. Across all tree species, the number of browsed stems increased linearly with the number available and responded unimodally to tree height. Maximum browsing rates were observed on trees with high stem abundances (>10 per plant) and of heights between 50 and 150 cm. Deer preferred Ulmus americana and Acer saccharinum, and avoided Fraxinus pennsylvanica, Acer negundo, and Quercus spp. at mainland sites, and did not browse Phalaris arundinacea if present. Depending on plant growth responses to herbivory and the competitive effects of unbrowsed species, our results suggest that selective foraging could promote the expansion of invasive species and/or alter tree species composition in bottomland forest restorations. Islands may, however, serve as refuges from browsing on a regional scale.
Additional publication details
Winter browse selection by white-tailed deer and implications for bottomland forest restoration in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, USA