Ginseng-Hungry Deer Eating Appalachian Tradition

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 14, 2005
Since the 18th century, industrious folk in Appalachia have energized
their bank accounts through the harvest and sale of wild American
ginseng. Today, the increasing number of local white-tailed deer is
putting future American ginseng harvests in doubt.

Wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is one of the most widely harvested medicinal plants in the United States. When consumed by humans, it is thought to boost energy and increase concentration. It is especially popular in Asia, where a pound (half a kilogram) can fetch as much as U.S. $500.

But deer may soon kill the ginseng buzz.

Ginseng grows in hardwood forests of eastern North America from Quebec to Georgia. Most wild-harvested ginseng comes from the southern Appalachian Mountains. (The Appalachian Mountains stretch from central Alabama to central New York.)

In recent decades, as the number of the deer's natural predators and competitors has declined in the Appalachians, deer populations have exploded. The deer devour backyard gardens, stunt forest growth, smash into cars, and spread disease. They also quietly nibble away at the plants and shrubs that carpet the forests, including wild ginseng.

"Almost all [ginseng] populations are very vulnerable to extinction over the next century," said James McGraw, a conservation biologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

McGraw and graduate student Mary Ann Furedi created a stir about wild American ginseng's potential extinction when they published results from a five-year study of wild American ginseng and its future last month in the journal Science.

According to the study, hungry deer—not human harvesters—are causing ginseng to disappear. The two researchers concluded that, unless deer populations are halved, wild American ginseng plants will likely disappear within a hundred years.

If ginseng goes, so too will a centuries-old Appalachian tradition.

To keep the plant and tradition alive, McGraw and Furedi are calling for an increase in mountain lions, wolves, and deer hunters.

Ginseng Tradition

The North American ginseng trade dates back to the time of frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone, who made more money selling the herb than trapping furs, according to McGraw. Though the plant populations are less abundant today, the harvest continues.

"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.

Deer Damage

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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