By Ryan Trapani, Education Forester at the Catskill Forest Association
“I’m going hunting in the mountains.” It just sounds right, doesn’t it? For years people from the Hudson Valley left their homes, packed a bag and a gun, and headed for the hills of northern Ulster County to hunt. The mountains offered an opportunity for hunters to pursue their game unencumbered over thousands of wooded acres. Each hollow or clove felt as his own to discover, explore, and pursue deer wherever they might go; after all the Hudson Valley had few deer back then. Say what!
It’s difficult to imagine that areas like Westchester and Dutchess Counties had few deer at one time. A good portion of the valley had been cleared for agriculture (and homes) until the 1970s, after which many of the farms had been abandoned. Older photos from the 19th Century show the Rondout and Wallkill Valleys from Mohonk Mountain House as a landscape mostly resembling portions of Iowa. The only trees that existed were near homesteads or following a stream. The land had been cleared to provide growing space for a contiguous tiny canopy used to feed domestic animals. Grass provided growing space for sheep and cows leaving few leftovers for undomesticated life-forms; namely wildlife.
So, there were few deer if any in the Hudson Valley until the second half of the 20th century. If you wanted to see a wild animal, then you’d have to go where there were fewer farms and more trees. The mountainous portion of northern Ulster County fit the bill for such pursuits. Although there were still farms up in the hills, there was already less than there once was. Farm abandonment reached the mountains earlier than areas down in the valley did due to its scraggly and remote nature. Many farms were abandoned in the late 19th century after the Civil War. The Great Depression began another wave of farm abandonment too. Even before farming began, the tanning industry in the mid-19th Century left its mark in the woods, leaving behind fewer hemlock trees and narrow bark roads for leather-making. Sawmills which used to operate in almost every valley, continued to operate into the 20th century, but many too had already closed. They left behind old landings, some skid roads, and a much different forest.
A Widowed Landscape Regrown
So what does this widowed forest have to do with deer hunting; everything. It was this different forest that these industries left behind that aided hunters in their pursuit of deer. Let’s start with the tanning industry. Catskill Naturalist – John Burroughs – writes about tromping around in the mountains of Ulster County near Slide Mountain – the Catskill Mountains’ highest peak – in the late 19th century. He admits to picking blackberries that had grown in after the tanners had felled hemlock trees many years ago. The hemlock had been removed in many portions of these mountains, but what grew back in is what most interested deer and later, deer hunters.
I too have also tromped around quite a bit in the mountains of Ulster County. One oak tree that fell across the trail showed its age after it had been sawn. It dated back to the Civil War. It must have grown there sometime after the farmer quit; perhaps he traded in his farm clothes for a Union Jacket. Up the trail on this same hill-side were more remnants from his farm – an apple tree, more stone walls, and a mill dating back to the 1700s.
All too often we point to the destructive nature these industries had on the Catskills forests. However, the forest these industries left behind was a much younger one, and in many cases, a more diverse one too. Oak, black cherry, hickory, and blueberry require disturbance and sunlight to grow and succeed. The tanning industry may have removed the hemlock, but it allowed a place for more oak and cherry. Sawmills may have cut down some trees, but younger growth provided more browse for deer and grouse to seek cover in. Farming may have cleared the entire forest in places, but it was short-lived. In its place grew a young forest full of seedlings, herbs, and shrubs; many of which produce fruit.
The younger forest provided ideal conditions for deer. There was so much food in the forest from this mere accident. What was one’s man’s loss was another’s treasure; or a salad bar in this case for deer. From the early 20th Century to the 1970s, hunting camps were being built throughout the mountains. These camps – perhaps unknowingly – followed the business failures of the 19th Century (and early 20th Century) in tanning, farming and sawmilling. In other words, shots fired up on the mountain at deer were reverberations made possible from another time; a blast from the past if you will. The numbers of deer existed because of the stumps these men left behind (and what grew in afterwards).
A Quiet Wilderness
Today, the reverberations have mostly been silenced. Most of those hunting camps have since been sold for residences. Fewer hunters come up to the mountains to pursue deer. Instead of going to the mountains to hunt, the sons and daughters of these same hunters remain in the valley, where there are more deer. The tables have turned. The forests of northern Ulster County are still forested; they’re just much older than they were 50 years ago. Mature forests may be great for hermit thrush and scarlet tanagers, but produce little food for species that make a living near the ground. It’s not to say only a young forest can fill the bill, but that diversity in ages does better.
Today, the high peaks of the Catskills have some of the least amount of deer per square mile than anywhere in the state. The few deer that do live there manage to browse away most of the palatable vegetation growing on the forest floor up to a height of five feet. Their browse-impact does seem to taper off as one approaches about 2500 feet in elevation probably due to winter mortality in such areas. In other words, it seems that the deer – under poor habitat conditions – are now leaving their marks more than the abandoned industries of the 19th century. There just isn’t enough disturbance and sunlight to grow vegetation and satisfy the deer herd’s appetite.
Hudson Valley Regrowth & Decline
On the other hand, the Hudson Valley has been experiencing farm abandonment since the latter portion of the 20th century. Overall, its forests are much younger and contain a patchwork of openings, fields, lawns, houses, landscaping, and shrub-lands that offer food and cover for deer and other wildlife that depend upon vertically-challenged plant-life. From a deer’s perspective, this growth mimics natural and synthetic disturbances in the woods that have occurred in the past. In fact, there seems to be an overabundance of deer in some areas where impacts from Lyme’s Disease, car collisions, agricultural damage, and landscaping damage are severe.
Overall it’s mostly about sunlight. Sure, hunting does have an impact on deer density. However, I believe that it’s about habitat that counts the most. Both the valley and the mountains may have different deer densities and hunters in hot pursuit. However, they share one thing in common: they both are being browsed heavily despite these differences. The lack of quality habitat will leave more starving deer venturing down from the mountain or nearby neighbor’s woodlot to browse your garden or flowers year after year.
In 2015, many of the forests of the Hudson Valley are well beyond farm abandonment and are maturing just as the mountain’s forests did a half-century or more ago. The deer herd of the Hudson Valley will also continue to decline while deer will become smaller (in weight) as food becomes scarce. Less deer will be able to keep up with less that grows reaching a plateau where only plants resistant to browse succeed; think thorny plants. In other words, it’s up to humans to keep one step ahead of the deer herd at all times by providing adequate habitat conditions alongside deer hunting.
Still Going To the Mountains
Don’t get me wrong. I still like to go hunting in the mountains and “take the gun for a walk.” The mountains do offer the hunter something unique – remoteness. Although these mature forests have filtered out most of the sun’s energy and thinned its deer herd, mature bucks still persist. They might be few and far between, but the mythical mountain buck is still something to keep one up at night. Maybe instead of building a camp, perhaps just bring a good pack-in and something to build a fire with and think about all the people – animals and plant-life included – that have influenced our forests in the past.
For more information on the controversial issue of deer management, join the conversation in Margaretville, Delaware County on October 31st @ THE GROWING DEER DEBATE. Buy tickets online @ CFA’s website – www.catskillforest.org