It is not news that the deer abundance on Jekyll Island can be a bother, but how much of a bother they are to the island’s trees is the topic of an ongoing project commissioned by the Jekyll Island Authority and headed up by a group from the University of Georgia.
Speaking Tuesday at the monthly JIA board meeting, UGA assistant professor Lizzie King said two types of forest on the island — maritime live oak and maritime pine — are in some amount of danger, taking into consideration the water table dropping for the last 50-60 years, nibbling by woodland creatures and canopy availability.
“These two forest types are pretty unique to barrier islands, and there’s not much of them in the world,” King said. “And because of environmental change and development, they’re considered globally vulnerable.”
There is a worry about stronger, invasive species taking over where deer congregate, and researchers are looking into “whether manipulating litter or deer density is going to give the natives an edge up.”
For instance, camphor trees, originally from China, tend not to behave invasively in other areas of the country, but they are proving to be so on Jekyll. King said they do not know what, at present, are the most significant stressors when it comes to regeneration of native trees. She said much of the work comes down to simply counting what plants are out there.
“So, we’re out there doing this now, and I think the changes are going to be much faster, because the intensity of deer impact there, and the rate at which these camphors grow — it’s kind of spooky,” King said.
She went on to add, “Hopefully, between these two really important forests, we’re going to start finding out how deer and these other stressors are combining to shape the future of Jekyll’s forests. We’ve got two more years to go, but we’re set up and collecting very interesting data. And I think the implications for much broader conservation in these ecosystems is really being spearheaded now on Jekyll.”
For instance, one feeling now is that laurel oaks are moving into what used to be live oak territory because of opportunities in the canopy and the drop of the water table.
“When this project culminates two years from now — May of 2020 is our expectation — we’re not looking for them to come back to us and say, ‘Yes, you know what, you were right. There are a lot of deer on Jekyll Island.’ We know that’s the case,” said Ben Carswell, conservation director for the JIA. “What they will be providing is a lot more information about the ecology of the plant communities as that relates to deer, for us to then make some decisions as needed, going forward.”
The quality of Jekyll’s forests is a leading draw for visitors to Jekyll Island, according to data shared with the board by JIA Marketing Director Meggan Hood.
In February, Carswell announced the Fall 2016 deer estimate found 175 bucks on the island, leading to a density of 132 deer per square mile, or 824 total deer. He also said then that the island’s bobcats appear to be using the island, tip-to-tail.
In other matters, the board voted to approve acquiring a $23,507 freshwater holding basin for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at a cost to the JIA of only $4,528, thanks to a Sea Life grant The Jekyll Island Foundation received.
Also, Georgia Power project manager Matt Connor explained the process the company intends to follow in replacing utility poles along the length of the Downing Musgrove Causeway. The system of poles is 58 years old. The work should begin in December and be completed in 2019.