Deer Exclosure Research Project

Blue Ridge Discovery Center will launch its Deer Exclosure Research Project this fall at the Matthews State Forest under the guidance of Zach Olinger, state forester. Our research team will consist of students from Carroll County High School. Teachers assisting will be Alan Webb, agricultural instructor, and Rachelle Rasco, STEM lab manager and biology instructor. From BRDC, Evan Worrell and Scott Jackson-Ricketts will serve as guides and project coordinators.

The practice of establishing deer exclosures dates back to at least the 1930s, and has been used to study the long term effects of deer browsing on forests. The basic approach is to choose a site that includes room for both the exclosure and control plots. Size of the plots is determined by proper and available space. 25% direct sunlight is required for both plots, and typically described in rectangles. The exclosures are fenced off from deer but are accessible to the research teams.

Zach has agreed to give our team the opportunity to participate in the construction of a deer exclosure, which will be placed west of MSF headquarters on the north side of highway 58. At that time, a full bio-assessment will be made, establishing our baseline. From there we have scheduled a late fall return to begin comparisons, another visit in early spring and again in late spring. On the south side of highway 58, the MSF has an older deer exclosure which we will visit as well.

Our educational goals are to follow guidelines of scientific inquiry which include building hypotheses based on early discussions about forest habitat and successional growth. We are expecting 20 students, which we will break down into three or four teams. Those teams will work on their hypotheses through observation and research. This process involves careful planning and testing, analysis and interpretation and constant reflection. The end goal is to produce conclusions and a report defending or refuting the hypotheses.  Creating a study plot that can be used for years to come is another important outcome.

The research process involves adhering to an agreed upon series of protocols. Mapping out both plots into grids for detailed studies is essential. Data collection and documentation are the driving components. Type of tree cover, living or dead, descriptions of overstory (canopy) and understory growth including stumps, measurements of trunk diameter at approximately three feet from ground level, as well as total height of trees will be noted. Types of vegetation will be broken down into these categories: trees, woody shrubs, herbaceous, graminae (grasses) and miscellaneous. Cover percentage of each vascular plant species to be determined by means of a sampling frame, which will be numbered on the grid.

Questions which have not yet been addressed are: will we perform a controlled burn, will we remove invasive species and replace with native plantings, or just allow for natural regeneration? Will we be able to measure rainfall (those records can be accessed on-line somewhat)? And, will the students create and provide signage on site? As we move closer to launching this project, these and other questions will begin to grow along with the curiosity necessary to a successful research event.