Deeryard: Essex County Whitetails Rely on Cooperation Between State and Landowner

Deeryard: Essex County Whitetails Rely on Cooperation Between State and Landowner

The snow depth in this photo is approximately eighteen inches, enough to make travel very burdensome, if not impossible, for mature deer. Inside a deeryard, the snow depth is reduced because the thick conifers intercept snowfall. Photo by Charles Willey.

Virtually every single deer within a 200 square mile section of Essex County makes tracks every December to the Nulhegan Basin to spend the winter in the relative comfort of Vermont's largest deeryard. Located in the towns of Lewis, Ferdinand, Brighton, Bloomfield and Brunswick, the basin is the geological descendant of a vast ancient lake. It looks like no other place in Vermont; a wide and flat boreal forest, it features large wetland areas interspersed w i t h dense spruce-fir forests. It is drained by the four branches of the Nulhegan River, which drops down to the Connecticut River at Bloomfield.

Throughout Vermont, but especially in the North Country where they are pushing the northern limit of their range, deer have to retreat to thick stands of softwoods in order to survive the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures typical of a N e w England winter.

That's why this 15,000 acre deeryard is so important to the estimated 1200 Northeast Kingdom deer w h o use it and to the Fish & Wildlife biologists whose job it is to manage the state's deer herd.

If the state owned all the land in the deeryard, maintaining its viability as shelter for wintering deer would clearly be the top priority. But the state owns only 13% of it, the 2000 acre Wenlock Wildlife Management Area.

The remainder is in private hands, most notably those of Champion International Corporation, which owns over 11,000 acres of the deeryard as part of its 145,000 acre holdings in Vermont. Champion, into which the former St. Regis Paper Company merged in the 80s, is Vermont's largest industrial landowner. T o put its holdings into perspective. Champion owns a little more than one-third of Essex/Dounty's 666 square miles, including the entire town of Lewis.

Cedric Alexander, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, said that five years ago the state became worried that Champion was harvesting too much softwood to maintain the winter deer habitat in the Nulhegan basin and they asked for a moratorium on cutting.

According to Bud Delano, Champion's district forester whose territory includes the Nulhegan basin, Champion's operations were harvesting timber that was overmature and falling victim to blowdowns and spruce budworm disease. T h e balsam fir in particular but also the red spruce was losing its viability as fiber for pulp.

While Champion's Vermont holdings are approximately two-thirds hardwoods, its corporate lifeblood is spruce and fir. Its two northeastern paper mills (in Deferriet, New York and Bucksport, Maine) and its sole sawmill (in Costigan, Maine) process spruce and fir exclusively.

Its Nulhegan holdings posed a problem because the majority of the softwood in the basin had been regenerated at the same time, back around World War I, and so a huge percentage of it was maturing simultaneously 70 years later.

O n the way to this level of maturity, beginning in the 40s and 50s, the stand had become almost perfect winter habitat for deer. It provided a dense canopy to intercept snow and wind, and the buds of various hardwoods like mountain ash, birch and maple in the understory were providing good winter browse. Deer from miles around began congregating there in the winter as the Essex County (and statewide) deer herd grew, helped along by the concurrent abandonment of farmland, which was providing abundant non-winter range.

By the 70s, more than 10,000 acres of softwoods were maturing and simultaneously were under attack by the spruce budworm. St. Regis began harvesting then and Champion continued in the 80s. When Fish & Wildlife asked for the moratorium in 1989, its biologists saw an essential deer wintering area that was in danger of losing its viability; Champion saw a mature product that needed to be harvested before it lost its economic value. The state and its largest landowner were at apparent loggerheads. Said Delano, "They started out with 'You can't cut,' and we said, 'But we have to cut.'"

Biologists Cedric Alexander and Charles Willey and Forests, Parks and Recreation forester David Willard sat down at the table with Delano and other foresters at Champion and over a period of years, their seemingly unreconcilable differences were hammered at, smoothed out and molded into an agreement that is unique in the state of Vermont. The joint management plan with its specific goals, objectives and strategies is the first ever between the state and a large industrial landowner, and it could serve as a model for future agreements.

The plan created the Nulhegan Deer Wintering Area ( NDWA) , and set a goal of providing continuous viable cover in 50 percent of the NDWA ' s area by the year 2035. Viable cover is defined as softwoods at least 35 feet tall with a crown closure of more than 70 percent. At the moment, the foresters estimate they have 46% viable cover, but almost all of it is very fragile because the trees are past maturity.

The plan's strategy is to hold onto the existing cover until the regeneration from the last twenty years, much of which is pole size now, becomes viable cover. David Willard said that pre-commercial thinning, which is an expensive proposition, is essential in order to bring the pole size timber to maturity more quickly. The state has screed to share the cost of the thinning.

Both Delano and Willard believe that they can reach 50 percent cover sooner than 2035, perhaps as many as 20 years sooner. But until they do reach 50 percent, Champion has agreed that all their harvesting operations will be salvage cuts on overmature areas that no longer provide cover.

The plan also provides for permanent travel corridors between cover stands, and besides whitetail deer, it takes into consideration non-game species like the blackbacked woodpecker, gray jay, Wilson's warbler, boreal chickadee, and most notably, the spruce grouse, a Vermont endangered species not known to nest outside of the Nulhegan basin.

Said Delano, "We accept the fact that we are going to lose more to mortality than we would have otherwise, and we've lowered our expectations per acre in exchange for other values. We are looking at spruce and fir fiber as the secondary crop in there. Deer cover is the primary concern.

There are cynics who might question the commitment of a huge corporation like Champion to this type of plan, but Cedric Alexander, who spent many hours with Delano and the other Champion people, is not one of them. He said, "This is not a smokescreen. I believe they're sincere in their desire to do the right thing. Their people spent a lot of time meeting with us. Walking around in good mature timber in the woods and not marking it has got to be hard to do, but they're committed to this plan. I think they deserve a lot of credit and I sincerely believe that they have sacrificed quite a bit."

Willard, who has worked as a forester in the Northeast Kingdom for twenty years, said, "There's been some personnel shifts at Champion, and there have been shifts in thinking in the last twenty years throughout the whole profession. Younger guys who have been through forestry school more recently have a different outlook. They're more aware of public pressures, and they have a different attitude about how to treat the resource."

Echoing Willard's thoughts, but from within the Champion corporate structure, Delano said, "The days are gone when you can just puff up your chest and say 'It's my land and I'm going to do what I want to with it.' When you own this amount of land, you have an effect on a lot of people."

Already, Champion has been showing some flexibility. When it became clear that using feller-bunchers to conduct salvage operations was damaging young regeneration in some stands, Delano shifted gears and called on Colebrook logger Gilles Champagne who worked with horses to get the logs out and to protect the regeneration.

And even on Champion land outside the NDWA, Delano has been responsive. Willard said, "We were up doing some aerial survey work and I saw from the air what looked like some water quality problems. I called Bud and said 'You better get up there and take a look.' This was on a Friday afternoon. That night, they had the job shut down. He told me, 'If you see anything on our lands that you have a question about, for God's sake let us know.'

"Now if you would have told me five years ago that I'd be going on Champion land and supervising a contractor, I'd have said you were smoking too much of something. We might go up and check on a job, but for Champion to grant us the ability to step in, that's a different story. These guys are from a different school."

Champion forester Don Tase said, "We have to learn from history. We've found that the spruce budworm outbreaks coincide with balsam fir's biological maturity, and we can't let the whole thing become an even-aged stand. It's not good deeryard management and it's not good economics."

There are mapped deeryards in more than 90 percent of Vermont's towns. They range in size from less than 100 acres to more than 1000, with an average size of about 200 acres. In area, the state's deeryards cover somewhere around 10 percent of the State, which means that during the winter months, all of the state's deer are holed up in 10 percent of the land area.

Those areas are critical to the survival of the deer herd, and conducting a logging operation in a deeryard can be a tricky bit of business. A forest manager can err in either direction: cut too much and there will never be enough shelter; cut too little and the shelter will become overmature. which compromises the stand's future. What happened on the Nulhegan deeryard can happen on a hundred-acre yard as well.

Whitetail deer are important to Vermonters, who like to drive around at dusk in the summer and see deer on the edge of fields, who like to hunt deer in November, who like to be assured that the state is concerned about the winter survival of deer. Perhaps it is the presence on the state seal of a 10-point buck in silhouette that gives the best indication of the prominent part the whitetail plays in the collective psyche of Vermonters.

 
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