Effects of deer exclusion on plant recovery in dune ecosystems after a severe coastal storm

The dunes of barrier islands erode during storm events but they also prevent damage to inland ecosystems. For these dunes to function in this way, vegetation recovery between storm events is essential. Characteristic of dune-building grasses, growth of roots and shoots increases as sand accumulates at the base, forming a new dune over time. Factors that hinder vegetation recovery rates can reduce resilience to future disturbances through increased coastal vulnerability. Herbivory is one such factor, yet the degree to which it affects the composition and structure of recovering vegetation is little understood.

A white-tailed deer grazing the recovering dunes of Fire Island National Seashore. Image credit: Kilheffer et al.

In a recent study published in AoBP, Kilheffer et al. investigate the effects of deer exclusion on plant recovery after a storm in a barrier island ecosystem. Fire Island National Seashore is a barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island, New York. The population of white-tailed deer has increased on the island over the last few decades. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, the authors used fences to prevent deer from eating and stepping on plants in some areas that were affected by the storm. They found that fenced areas had more plant cover than unfenced areas and most cover was beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata). Beachgrass is responsible for building dunes after storm events, and so grazing by deer prevents dune formation and reduces the protection provided to inland ecosystems. The authors state that “in an era of sea level rise, the ability of coastal barrier island vegetation to recover quickly after storm surge is a critical feature of resilience with important implications for ecosystem services provided to millions of people”. They hope that their study will help to better inform deer management strategies for these ecosystems in the future.

Researcher highlight

Chellby Kilheffer grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, USA. She moved to upstate New York, USA in 2012 to pursue a MS degree in Conservation Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF). Connections she made during her MS encouraged her to begin a PhD in Fish and Wildlife Biology and Management with a focus on herbivore impacts to coastal dunes after a major hurricane. Chellby is currently a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in the Washington, DC metro area.

Chellby is an ecologist with broad interests in coastal science, urban wildlife, human-wildlife interactions, wildlife conservation, and the intersections among science, policy, and public perception of wildlife and conservation issues.