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[Un]Natural Selection Ep. 4: 'Forest Of The Living Dead'

Erin O'Malley
Peers & Friends

When Steve Yancho arrived at North Manitou Island in the late 70s, he saw deer carcasses loaded into abandoned buildings and cars. He was witnessing the aftermath of a die off― something that happened cyclically on the island ever since the deer population got out of control. North Manitou is like a petri dish. It shows what happens when the deer exhaust a food supply, and all the young plants and greenery are eaten to a nub. It’s a cautionary tale about the entangled fates of whitetail deer and the forests they inhabit.

Credits for this episode:
Hosts: Dan Wanschura and Morgan Springer
Producer: Patrick Shea
Editor: Morgan Springer
Consulting Editor: Peter Payette
Music: Max Dragoo, Marlin Ledin, Santah
Logo: Erin O'Malley

Bluffs on the western shore of North Manitou Island
Lars Jensen
Bluffs on the western shore of North Manitou Island

MORGAN SPRINGER, CO-HOST: From Interlochen Public Radio, this is [UN]Natural Selection: a series about the ripple effects of the human footprint. I’m Morgan Springer.

DAN WANSCHURA, CO-HOST: And I’m Dan Wanschura. These are stories of environmental management gone right, gone wrong, gone out of control. And this story starts on an island that’s out of whack.

SPRINGER: Its forests are bare and quiet. And flesh-eating deer walk the beach, snatching fish from the water.

WANSCHURA: Today, Episode 4: 'Forest Of The Living Dead'. Here to bring us this story is reporter Patrick Shea. Patrick, this sounds like science fiction.

PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: It really does, but this is a true story. We’re going to North Manitou Island― part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, here in Michigan.

Steve Yancho was one of the first park rangers to set foot on the island, in the late 70s.

STEVE YANCHO: The forest was more of a park-like setting, you could see into the trees real easily.

SHEA: That’s because deer had eaten all the vegetation on the forest floor.

YANCHO: Some of these trees, the tops would snap off and fall onto the ground. And those treetops would just be gnarled down to the hard wood, where deer had gnawed off every bit of bark that they could

SHEA: These were signs that the deer on North Manitou Island were about to starve.

Steve and other park rangers went on winter surveys, to see just how bad the problem was.

YANCHO: We would ski certain loops and look for numbers of deer. As you were skiing along, you would see deer that were alive but were too weak to stand up. Just in the last throes of starvation.

In the spring when you’d go out, the dying deer as they were getting to that point would find just any building, any old barn, or an abandoned car…anything to get out of the weather. You’d find 50 or 60 or more deer just dead in one room. Same with the car, ten or twenty deer that would jam into a car and die.

SHEA: Were employees having to clean up deer bones from inside?

YANCHO: Yeah, they had to be cleaned up. It wasn’t the most pleasant job.

SPRINGER: Wait, why were these deer cramming into cars and buildings?

SHEA: They’re just trying to get out of the wind and the cold. They were looking for somewhere comfortable to curl up and die, really.

And in the summer, things got even weirder.

YANCHO: I was on a little bluff overlooking a beach and I saw these deer coming down, just right in front of me, they were picking up these dead dried up alewives off the beach.

SHEA: Alewives are fish. Deer eating fish. And what Steve saw wasn’t just one freak incident.

YANCHO: The researcher that was out there in the early 80s, he estimated that 30 to 50 percent of their daily diet was comprised of alewives in some instances. And it wasn’t just the dead ones on the shore, he sometimes saw the fish as they were being washed in with the waves…and the deer were standing out in the waves and kind of trying to grasp at these fish in the water.

WANSCHURA: That can’t be good. That’s not normal is it?

SHEA: No. Not at all.

SPRINGER: Ok what is going on with this island?

SHEA: Well, what was going on was basically a deer farm.

SPRINGER: In a national park?

SHEA: This predates the park. It all started in 1925. There was a community of people living on North Manitou year-round back then – and wanted a private deer herd for hunting. At first, they brought just nine whitetails from Pennsylvania to the island.

But by 1940, almost all 14,000 acres of North Manitou were bought up by a wealthy Detroit businessman named William Angell. He saw the herd as a financial opportunity. So he started leaving feed piles and salt licks out for the deer. And with no predators around, they ate their fill in peace. The herd grew until there were well over two thousand whitetails on the island.

WANSCHURA: Is that a lot? Put that in perspective for us.

SHEA: Well I’m no mathematician, but I got about 91 deer per square mile. Now compare that to the rest of Michigan which has about 30 deer per square mile.

SPRINGER: So, yeah that’s a lot.

SHEA: Yeah.

WANSCHURA: Patrick, it sounds like this Angell guy’s a businessman, but where’s the money in a big deer herd?

SHEA: In shooting them. Angell started marketing the island as a hunting retreat for the uber-wealthy.

Eric MacDonald is an environmental historian who literally wrote the book on North Manitou. Here he is imagining what a guest on the island might’ve experienced back then.

ERIC MACDONALD: If he had enough money, he might be able to go to North Manitou Island. He’s going to be staying in this lodge. He’s going to have people feeding him, and taking him out into the forest.

SHEA: It wasn’t uncommon for guests on North Manitou to shoot four or five deer in a single afternoon. And even if you were a really poor shot, there was still a one deer guarantee.

MACDONALD: One of the employees would go get one for them. That gives you some kind of indication of how many deer there were. And maybe if you were interested in deer hunting, it would be kind of a Northern Michigan paradise.

SHEA: William Angell passed away in 1950, but his hunting paradise carried on. Then in the 1970s, the Park Service bought North Manitou and the island went into a sort of limbo phase. The hunting retreats stopped. The deer weren’t being fed, and so they ate what they could on the forest floor. And it didn’t take long for that food to run out.

And those bizarre, disturbing sights Steve Yancho saw on the island― that was part of an ongoing cycle. Lots of food leads to more deer, too many deer, not enough food. Starvation. Then the forest starts to grow back, the deer population booms again and it starts all over. It’s a vicious cycle, and it harms more than just the deer themselves.

Lee Frelich is a forest ecologist at the University of Minnesota, and he’s studied the impacts of “overbrowsing” all over the Upper Great Lakes.

FRELICH: Overbrowsing is whenever the deer continue to eat the seedlings for a long time (and) they create a forest of what we might call ‘the living dead.’ There’s still live trees, but until the deer go there’s no prospect that they could possibly reproduce. And so what gradually happens is the older trees die off without being replaced, and the other species replace them and they very slowly go extinct.

University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

SHEA: On North Manitou, pretty much all tree species are being replaced with beech trees― which deer don’t really like the taste of, and also don’t have the nutrients that deer need. Frelich says that change in the forest can have a sort of domino effect.

FRELICH: If you wipe out all but one tree species you’re gonna take a lot of species in every taxonomic group along with it. Wildflowers, fungi, insects…because you have different species under beech than under hemlock or under maple. You would even have fewer bird species nesting on the island, because some like to nest in conifers, some in aspen or birch…so it feeds through with what we call an ecological cascade.

WANSCHURA: Wow. I never realized deer could have such a big impact on everything else.

SPRINGER: So these are the ripple effects of the deer herd’s footprints.

SHEA: And I guess the footprints of whoever released those first nine whitetails on the island.

SPRINGER: But were there really no deer on this island before then?

SHEA: We can’t say for sure if a single whitetail ever crossed the ice in all of history. But there are some clues to suggest there was never a true herd on North Manitou. We can tell that just by looking a few miles south to the neighboring island: South Manitou. That’s where Steve Yancho was stationed in the early 70s.

YANCHO: South Manitou, since it didn't have deer, it had this real thick undergrowth of vegetation. There’s also yew on south manitou, also known as ground hemlock.

SHEA: Steve’s talking about Canada yew. It’s a kind of conifer shrub that deer love to eat. That’s why you really only find it in hard-to-reach places: like steep ravines, rocky cliffs or of course, stranded on an island in Lake Michigan. Except not North Manitou.

YANCHO: When we got to North Manitou there was an abrupt difference, in that there was no yew that was visible anywhere.

SHEA: And really not much else growing either. A pretty empty forest floor. North Manitou is an extreme. But this cycle of overbrowsing and starvation has happened on a statewide level, several times.

The fates of deer and the forests they live in are very intertwined. But there’s another player in this, and it’s us. We have a major influence on these booms and busts, and not necessarily in the ways we think we do.

BRENT RUDOLPH: We tend to overestimate the importance of regulating harvest, especially for species like deer.

SHEA: That’s Brent Rudolph. He’s in nonprofit conservation work now, but in his time as a wildlife research specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, he wrote a paper on the history of deer management in Michigan. And here’s the gist of it.

In the late 1800s, Michigan’s deer population was dwindling. So recreational hunters lobbied the state to restrict when and where hunting could happen.

RUDOLPH: Hunters are really up near the front of the line in terms of having a pronounced interest in what happens with deer in their state, because it’s a pastime they have a lot of passion and interest in.

SHEA: By the early 1920s, deer hunting was entirely illegal in about a third of Michigan’s counties. The plan was to take a few years and strengthen the herd. And at first, it seemed like the plan was working. The deer population did grow, for a while. But it wasn’t just because of new rules. There was something much bigger at play.

RUDOLPH: A lot of the early booms and busts came because land was cleared dramatically and extensively.

SHEA: Even before those hunting restrictions, everything was changing in the north woods. Old growth forests were being cut down at a rapid pace. This logging frenzy is often called “the cutover,” and it resulted in a sea of giant stumps from horizon to horizon.

U.S. Forest Service - Northern Research Station
U.S. Forest Service - Northern Research Station

Then over the next few decades, the forest did what forests do. It grew.

RUDOLPH: Deer and many other wildlife depend upon young forest habitat, the vegetation growing down close to the surface where they can reach it for food. And so, the first flush of new growth meant there was great habitat everywhere.

SHEA: Rudolph says that’s what really caused Michigan’s deer herd to explode in numbers. Not hunting restrictions. It was fresh food, growing pretty much all at once. The state went from an estimated 45,000 deer in 1914 to 1.5 million by the late 1940s.

And what happened next isn’t too different from what happened on North Manitou. The deer overbrowsed the growing forest, and began to starve.

RUDOLPH: We probably, to this day, don’t appreciate as much as we should that there are major land use and landscape changes that have driven a lot of these cycles of abundance.

SHEA: Eventually, wildlife managers caught on to this correlation between tree growth and deer population.

Through the 70s and 80s, the DNR spent $20 million dollars on selective cutting in state forests. Within a decade, the result was a patchwork of young trees. Each new clearing became an oasis for hungry deer.

This was hugely successful in growing the herd - it even worked a little too well.

Before long, there was another boom, and another bust.

And we have learned from the past. But the DNR still uses hunting regulations as its main tool for deer management. It loosens restrictions where signs of overbrowsing are present, to prevent starvation and to try and keep forests healthy. And it’s not easy to strike that balance. We started this cycle, but we don’t have as much control over it as we might like to think.

SPRINGER: Why not?

SHEA: Because of the cutover. That moonscape of stumps at the turn of last century. Those clear cuts restarted forest timelines, and synced them up. And when you look at Michigan's deer herd through the last century, the “booms” line up with young forest growth.

WANSCHURA: Can we break this cycle?

SHEA: That’s a good question. We make alterations here and there, and sometimes we even think ahead a few decades. But the cutover undid thousands of years of complex forest processes in a few decades. We won’t get those systems back anytime soon.

But on an island like North Manitou, this cycle of overbrowsing and starvation is accelerated. And maybe the solution will be, too.

FRELICH: One thing the park can do is have a relationship with local hunters.

SHEA: That’s Lee Frelich again, the forest ecologist. The good news is - the park service is already doing that.

Mishe Mokwa ferry en route to North Manitou Island
Patrick Shea
Interlochen Public Radio
Mishe Mokwa ferry en route to North Manitou Island

SHEA: It’s November, 2021. A crisp morning. And the Leland ferry is on its final trip of the season.

The Mishe-Mokwa ferry leaves without cargo, but returns from North Manitou Island packed full. Hunters in orange hats and camo, and a pile of deer carcasses stacked in the bow.

The boat pulls up to the dock. Passengers scramble to unload gear and deer. Some of the more successful hunters hoist trophy bucks over the port side.

JASON CRABLE: I am gonna get this guy cooled down, and find a taxidermist as soon as possible because he’s going on the wall and I’m gonna enjoy the venison with myself and my family.

SHEA: Jason Crable traveled from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for this special annual hunt. He poses for a picture with his eleven-pointer. And he’s just full of smiles.

Patrick Shea
Interlochen Public Radio

CRABLE: It’s kind of still settling in how big he is, and how good of a buck he is.

SHEA: This is the annual North Manitou deer hunt. Over 200 hunters just spent a cold, windy week on the remote island. They’re returning from a rugged backcountry hunting experience unlike any other in the Upper Great Lakes.

SHEA: What’s the first thing you’re doing now that you’re back on the mainland?

DAN GIDDIS: I’m eating a f**ing hamburger. Sorry, I’m eating a hamburger.

SHEA: That’s Dan Giddis from nearby Lake Ann, Michigan. He says he didn’t get a deer this time around, but still had an unforgettable week.

GIDDIS: Just the sights on the island. It’s still the adventure, man. The adventure’s what it’s all about.

SHEA: This hunt has been going on since 1984. In November, 160 deer were harvested. That number fluctuates with the boom and bust cycles. But the hope is: hunters will keep driving numbers down in the long run. And so far, they have been. Here’s Lee Frelich again.

FRELICH: I think if they can get it down to like five per square mile or less. Then things might recover. So that’s what I would recommend for a place like North Manitou.

That’s an ambitious goal. But every year, boatloads of hunters bring the island one step closer to recovery.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.