"Over 10,000 people in West Virginia alone go harvest it every year and earn from a few tens of dollars to a few thousand dollars every year as supplemental income," McGraw said.
The majority of the ginseng harvested is exported to Asia, according to Patricia Ford, a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, Virginia. She said the ginseng trade is a multimillion-dollar industry.
According to records from the West Virginia Division of Forestry, more than 6,400 pounds (2,900 kilograms) of ginseng worth more than two million dollars (U.S.) were harvested and exported from the state in 2002. The Appalachians span more than ten states.
The volume of ginseng exported each year spurred its listing in 1975 on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The international treaty protects plants and animals that are internationally traded. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implements CITES in the U.S.
According to McGraw, between 3 and 7 percent of the wild ginseng plants are harvested each year. But he added, "We don't know what the effect of that is."
Most state laws require harvesters to plant seeds wherever they uproot plants. In theory, harvesters should plant enough seeds to maintain current numbers of living ginseng plants.
McGraw and Furedi carefully studied seven populations of ginseng plants and kept tabs on more than two dozen additional populations. They discovered plant after plant with their valuable roots in the ground but their leaves nibbled, a clear sign of deer browsing.
Plants with nibbled leaves are less likely to reproduce and will eventually die, leading to decreasing populations, McGraw said. Using computer models, the researchers concluded that, should the deer-foraging trend continue, the over-two-century-old Appalachian ginseng harvest tradition will soon end.
Donald Waller is a botanist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He said McGraw and Furedi's study is carefully done, and he agrees with their models. Waller also said the study uses ginseng to illustrate the broad impact deer are having on the entire forest plant community.
"We find [ginseng] an exciting and sexy little plant, and we know a lot about it," Waller said. "But it shouldn't detract from the deeper, stronger meaning of the study. It's not what's going on with seven populations of one species, but what's going on with thousands of populations in hundreds of species."
Hunters, Mountain Lions, and Wolves
To save the ginseng and hundreds of other plant species browsed by white-tailed deer, McGraw and Furedi recommend that hunters shoot more deer, including females. The researchers also would like to see mountain lions and wolves reintroduced to the Appalachians.
"I'd love to see more mountain lions and wolves in the East," McGraw said. "That's just politically difficult to do. People have an irrational fear of top predators."
Ford, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist, said McGraw and Furedi are to be credited for confronting "head-on" the deer-population issue. But she doubts their study will result in the reintroduction to the Appalachians animals that kill and eat deer.
"I don't think that's realistic in today's society," she said.
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