Thursday, July 5, 2007

UW Botanist John Curtis: his legacy, and a follow-up

Pat Durkin column, from the Green Bay Press Gazette: Thank bookworm Curtis for planting seeds - July 5, 2007

One of the more ironic, if not moronic, comments often heard in our never-ending deer debates is that Mr. or Ms. Biologist is only "book smart" and needs to spend more time in the woods to see what's really going on.

Isn't it odd that anyone who has learned to read and write would mock information and education, the most precious, widely shared benefits a society provides? Granted, some bookworms need more sunlight and fresh air, but maybe their critics should spend more time with books and less time atop barstools. A little more reading might make them more receptive and perceptive when furthering their education in the woods.

No matter where you spend your free time, one book worth owning is "The Vegetation of Wisconsin" by John T. Curtis, a University of Wisconsin botanist who died 46 years ago this weekend — July 7, 1961, to be exact. Curtis compiled incredible amounts of information about our native plants and plant communities in his brief career and relatively short age. Fortunately for us, he understood the value of documenting and cataloging his observations so those who follow might benefit from his labors.

Curtis was 48 when cancer killed him. All that information he gathered would have died with him if not for books. Equally important, of course, is that later generations of botanists share Curtis' passion for applying the rigors of plant physiology to their work, and they continue building upon the foundations he laid.

During the late 1990s, for example, a team of UW botanists led by Tom Rooney and Don Waller found Curtis' original data sheets and punch cards he filled up from 1947 to 1960 to document the plant communities in 1,400 habitat sites across Wisconsin.

With fellow botanists Shannon Wiegmann and David Rogers, the UW team located 62 of Curtis' study sites in the forests of far north-central Wisconsin, as well as scattered sites in the western Upper Peninsula and Northeastern Wisconsin. Then, they spent lots and lots of time in the woods repeating Curtis' painstaking work.

When they finished, they compared and documented changes they found in the plant communities over the past 50 years and published their findings in "Conservation Biology." Several findings should interest deer hunters, bird watchers, tree huggers and anyone else who values Wisconsin's forests.

After reviewing the 62 sites, the researchers documented a nearly 20 percent loss of native plants, a slow rise in non-native plants, and less overall variety in plant species.

Not surprisingly, the biggest impacts were caused by white-tailed deer. Whitetails aren't known to run about the forest, shovels in hoof, replacing native plants with exotics, but their diet preferences determine which plants thrive or suffer.
As deer eat away vegetation that pleases their palate, the plants that take over are typically "generalists" such as native ferns, sedges and grasses. Deer turn up their noses at those plants. In addition, invasive plants like hemp nettle, orange hawkweed and Kentucky bluegrass also take hold.

The most intact, diverse plant communities remaining from Curtis' era grow where white-tailed deer are kept in check. The best examples are on Chippewa and Menominee Indian reservations, where deer numbers are usually half of what roams surrounding lands.

The most ironic finding was that two of the three study sites suffering the largest hits to plant communities were inside state parks, where no deer hunting was allowed. Imagine that. We set aside large areas to reduce human disturbance, but allow almost all recreation except hunting, and let plant communities take a pounding by hungry deer.
Those who protest every time the DNR opens a state park to limited deer hunting should keep that in mind.
But before anyone talks too smugly, they should realize few — if any — people would have noticed those shifts in the forest's plant communities if Curtis and his colleagues hadn't documented what they found 50 to 60 years ago.
Such knowledge is possible only through combined bookwork and legwork.

See the original online at

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