Local Trees Damaged by Buck Rubs (Not Back Rubs)

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Friday, October 11, 2019, 7:10 am
Alice Dreger

Our recent report on the Sept. 26 deer discussion at Hannah Community Center contained an editing error caused by yours truly. Here’s the correction we ran:

Due to an editing error, the original version of this article had Mike Vasievich referring to "back rubs" by deer. That was supposed to be "buck rubs" (bucks rubbing up against trees). So far as we know, deer don't give back rubs.

As a follow up, Mike sent some photos of buck rubs, and I asked him to explain them and tell us why they matter.

Mike is retired from 32 years of service as a research scientist and project leader for the USDA Forest Service. He is well known for volunteer environmental service in East Lansing and is also adjunct faculty at MSU’s Department of Forestry.

Mike explains that bucks (male deer) “rub trees for many reasons – to remove velvet [the fur on their antlers], to sharpen antlers, to mark their territory, to leave scent trails. This all has to do with mating – it’s what bucks do in the late summer and fall.”

As you can see, “the buck basically removes the bark mostly on one half (or more) of the tree. This exposes and removes the most critical vascular tissue – the phloem. That basically cuts off the circulatory system of the tree, like exposing and killing your arteries. If it survives, eventually, the tree may grow over the wound, but it may take many years.”

Mike further explains, “If the damage is not too extensive, some trees can survive, though their growth may be significantly reduced. In time (many years) the wound may heal over and be ‘compartmentalized’ by the tree. Or, it may create an infection court that provides a pathway for pathogens.”

Mike provided the photos you see here to illustrate damage. Both show the results of buck rubs on little leaf linden trees (Tilia cordata).

The tree above has survived, “but is severely scarred.” The photo below shows a young tree damaged near Mike’s house in the Fox Hills neighborhood of East Lansing.

As you can see, that tree had a white trunk guard on it, but obviously that did not stop the buck from rubbing against it.

According to Mike, “It is unlikely to survive or will be substantially deformed.” The tree was planted by the City and cost about two hundred dollars to plant.

Deer have become regular residents of some neighborhoods in East Lansing. Mike has gotten to know some of his local herd and, like a number of people in East Lansing, he’s not a big fan of having them around like squirrels.

“There is one dominant buck that hangs around our neighborhood,” he said. “It is about an 8-point. I have seen it several times nearby our house when I'm getting the paper or taking the dog out for her first outside break.”

He notes that “the bucks seem to target trees in the 3- to 5-inch diameter range. Does, of course, don't do this. They simply wander through back yards waiting for the bucks to find them.”

The feeding habits of deer can also damage or destroy trees.

“Northern cedars (and their cultivars called Arborvitaes) are like candy to deer in the winter because of the high calorie oil content in their foliage. Cherry trees are also highly favored. In winter, deer are always hungry and seem to target anything green. So, the buds of white pines are pretty tasty. They do not seem to like spruce, perhaps because the needles are sharp and prickly. I don't think I would chomp down on something that spikey.”

Mike explains his view on the deer this way: “I understand that many people like deer, but I would personally prefer fewer of them. In my opinion, we have created urban habitat that substantially encourages, and increases the population of deer. And, we've removed all natural predators. So, the population very well may be higher than would otherwise be the case.”

In other words, we may think of the deer as “natural,” but the environment we’ve created is not a wild environment. It’s one that invites certain critters more than others, and the one we’ve built invites deer.


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