Volunteers trained to track forest health

Landowners are being encouraged to help the state assess the impacts of deer on forest health.

A new tool for citizen scientists to track local forest health is called AVID, for Assessing Vegetation Impacts from Deer.

It was developed by biologists and foresters from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, ecologists at Cornell University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The AVID focuses research and monitoring efforts on wildflower and tree species eaten by deer in New York and includes laying out monitoring plots in forested areas. Within these plots, individual plants of the focal species are counted, marked, and measured.

Measuring these same plants each year will show whether browsing pressure from deer is changing over time and is expected to provide critical information for DEC biologists to guide deer management decisions. Additional information and data entry forms for the tool are available at aviddeer.com.

White-tailed deer can have significant impacts on forests and the other animals in that habitat, according to a release from the DEC. The effects of deer browsing can persist for decades.

A woodland with a park-like appearance, an understory dominated by invasive shrubs, and an obvious “browse line” (i.e. no green vegetation visible below five feet off the ground) are evidence that an overabundant deer population is negatively affecting the ecosystem. In areas with a history of severe deer overabundance, regeneration failure — the failure of new, young trees to grow — is threatening the future of the forest.

In addition, many of the tree species deer prefer to eat are valued for timber, so heavy browse pressure on seedlings makes forests less economically valuable.

The AVID method is designed to be useful for people who aren’t plant experts. The website includes detailed instructions and plant identification guides. A smartphone app will also be released soon and allow these online resources to be carried into the field and provide a platform for data collection.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is offering training classes across the state. Participants will learn to identify important spring wildflower species and tree seedlings, recognize evidence of deer impacts based on the presence or absence of key indicator species, and document changes in forest plants on their own land or land in their communities.

Individuals and organizations can use the results of AVID monitoring to guide property management decisions. In addition, data collected by volunteers and submitted to the central database will be used, in conjunction with public input about deer, to inform DEC biologists as they adjust deer populations to optimal levels throughout the state. Data can be entered online at aviddeer.com after users have registered, or paper data sheets can be mailed to Cornell.

Those interested in learning more, receiving information about upcoming training sessions, or becoming a volunteer, may contact Kristi Sullivan at kls20@cornell.edu.

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