Keystone State, Keystone Species

(Photo taken from National Geographic article “White-Tailed Deer” – view link above)

In our class discussion on February 5th, we learned about keystone species, a concept I was most intrigued by because of their powerful impact on an ecosystem. Coming from Pennsylvania (which, incidentally, is the “keystone” state), I decided to look into the keystone species of my homeland, only to discover several articles on the white-tailed deer.

My family is very outdoorsy. We love to go on nature walks and spend time on my grandparents’ farm, and are always excited to spot white-tailed deer scampering through the woods. It’s almost magical to us, because deer are so elusive and beautiful. Little did I know, however, how much damage they can inflict on an ecosystem.

Because of their limited herbivore diet, and their frequent “overbrowsing” of plant species, they have caused a lot of problems in Pennsylvanian forests. They can stand on their hind legs and consume the food supplies of smaller animals like canopy-resting birds. They even severely reduce the population of white-footed mice by eating their cover. As white-footed mice eat gypsy moths, the population of the moths is consequentially increasing. One article stated that the deer are more in the category of “keystone predators”, because they reduce biological diversity rather than support the habitats.

It’s also suggested, however, that deer play an important role in maintaining certain plant species. Their predatory acts may cause harm, but they still play a strong supporting role in their environments. Species and their surroundings are all connected in one large tangled web, and unfortunately not everyone can win. There are advantages and disadvantages of all living creatures, so how do we decide if we should manipulate nature or “let nature do its thing”?

Many believe that controlling the deer population has benefits – the fewer deer, the fewer adverse effects on other plants and mammals. But on a side note, we can’t be 100% certain we’ve discovered all ecological “links”. By decreasing the deer population, humans may inflict more harm than they realize.

Managing a habit is sort of like a voting system. Each candidate has good points and bad points, and you must consider which is better as a whole. Going out and shooting a bunch of deer seems monstrous, but by letting the deer negatively impact the environment – is that not also monstrous?

Now on a more personal note: my grandfather and uncle, who both reside on farmland, are avid hunters. I could never in my lifetime shoot a deer, but I’m no vegetarian either.   Many people are against hunting, and I completely understand why they feel that way. But at the same time, what about birds that eat mice? Lions that eat zebras? Consider any carnivore in any part of the world – should we deprive them of their food sources? As humans, we have the choice to sustain ourselves as vegetarians. But speaking as someone with health problems and iron deficiency, the doctors have mandated that I consume more red meat if I want to stay healthy. Many patients are told they NEED certain sources of protein in their diets to sustain themselves.

To wrap up, I think that ecosystems are much too complicated to consider each species as an individual. Everyone must do what he or she needs to do to survive. Yes, some species will disappear. Some will become overpopulated. But we are only human. And deer. And plant. We can only do the best we can.

-Brenna Thummler

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