Our woodlands at war: What does the future hold?
I love being in the woods during the month of May. The weather is nice, woodland plants are in bloom and it’s turkey season. For what more could a person ask? As any seasoned turkey hunter knows, some days are more exciting than others because on some mornings birds gobble to herald the day and the next there's dead silence. It was on one of these silent mornings I had a chance to sit and ponder the things around me. About mid-morning with no turkey action for the past several hours – make that past several days – I sat with my back to a large hemlock tree, passing time and thinking what I was experiencing wasn’t something unusual.
In nearly 50 years of turkey hunting I’ve never killed a tom when the dogwood bloomed. Don’t ask why because I don’t know. What I do know is when the dogwood blooms, it seems like the turkeys leave town and better days are coming. Only this year there wasn’t any dogwood in the woods I hunt. My favorite Tioga County hillside, once dotted with snow-white dogwood “flowers,” was devoid of the trees that produced them, all victims of dogwood anthracnose a fungal infection that has almost wiped out flowering dogwood trees in large portions of the eastern and southern United States. It’s sad because the dogwood isn’t just beautiful; it’s an important understory and midstory component of many of our forest ecosystems. I’m sure there are areas where the dogwood still blooms and some may still survive where I hunt, but so far this year I haven’t seen any. I felt remorse at the prospect of losing such beautiful trees, but soon my attention turned to the ash, maple, beech and other trees that surrounded me. I wondered what would eventually become of them and to the creatures that live among them. You see, there are enemies about, other creatures that may possibly spell the end of the woods as we currently know them.
Large beech trees that once produced tons of beechnuts for the dining pleasure of deer, turkeys, squirrels and other creatures are now largely gone, victims of a small insect that causes beech bark disease and the death of the tree. On the farm properties I currently hunt, lonely trunks of once stately beech trees litter the ground or stand as ghostly, decaying reminders as to what they once were.
The hemlock is found all through our northern woods, and because of the cover they provide they are a favorite place for me to set up a treestand while bowhunting. However, a small insect called the wooly adelgid is currently knocking on our front door, threatening to eradicate vast stands of these beautiful evergreens. Once the adelgid population attacks a healthy hemlock, death typically occurs four to 10 years after infestation. Trees that survive the direct effects of the infection are usually weakened and may die from secondary causes.
Ash wood, known for its excellent burning properties, has long been used for baseball bats, wood floors, tool handles and furniture, but yet another insect, the emerald ash borer, is wreaking havoc on this forest species. I personally know some property owners who are currently cutting all the existing ash trees on their property trying to salvage the wood while there is still time.
To make matters even worse, the Asian long-horned beetle, a native to China, Japan and Korea, may be one of the most destructive non native insect pests ever introduced into this country. Trees favored by this unwelcome pest are predominantly maples, but infestations have also been discovered in horse chestnuts, poplars, willows, elms, mulberries and black locusts. Currently, there is no known chemical or biological defense against them and, in North America, they have few natural predators.
I hope I’m wrong, but the foreseeable future of our beloved forests may soon be changing and not for the better. What our children inherit remains to be seen.