We studied the effects of browsing by Odocoileus virginianus (white-tailed deer) on the native and non-native vegetation in a mixed oak-beech forest in Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC. We compared the thickness and cover of vegetation up to 2 m in height, and species richness of native and non-native plants in 17 exclosed (1 × 4 m) and 17 control plots from 2001–2004. Over the four-year period, foraging by deer suppressed the thickness of vegetation ≤ 1 m in height, reduced the cover of herbaceous, woody, and native plants, and generally decreased the species richness of native and woody plants. Browsing had no effects on the species richness of non-native plants, but generally reduced the prevalence of Celastrus orbiculatus (oriental bittersweet). Of the dominant canopy species, browsing affected Quercus spp. (oak) regeneration, but had no apparent effects on Fagus grandifolia (American beech). These results indicate that white-tailed deer are having a detrimental effect on the structure and species richness of native plants in this forest, and as a consequence, diminishing the value of the habitat for wildlife. In addition, white-tailed deer may help control the spread of oriental bittersweet in forest interiors, particularly where this species occurs at relatively low levels. If deer browsing is left uncontrolled in this forest, we predict that its future composition will shift towards one with fewer species and one dominated almost exclusively by American beech.
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