American ginseng, sister of the Asian wonder herb and a seasonal cash crop in Appalachia, has two obstacles to long-term survival in the United States: Man and deer.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va American ginseng, sister of the Asian wonder herb and a seasonal cash crop in Appalachia, has two obstacles to long-term survival in the United States: Man and deer.
That's the conclusion of West Virginia University biologist James McGraw, who says that since humans aren't going anywhere, it's time to do something about the deer.
In Friday's edition of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, McGraw says natural, slow-growing ginseng could be extinct within 100 years if deer keep grazing at current rates.
He contends there are two ways to ensure its survival: Reintroduce mountain lions, wolves or other natural predators to the Appalachians, or loosen hunting restrictions to reduce the deer herds.
"Nature is out of balance here because we've killed off the top predators, so the obvious solution is to restore them," McGraw says. "But obviously, that's not going to be everyone's choice."
Curtis Taylor, chief of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' wildlife section, laughs at what he calls a "totally unrealistic" suggestion.
"That would be sociological suicide," he says. "Look at what's going on out West with the reintroduction of wolves. There are hundreds of thousands of acres there with no people, and people are fighting it. I wouldn't even dream of proposing to people that we reintroduce mountain lions."
Buddy Davidson, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, says it's also unnecessary.
"Don't worry about the ginseng," he says. "The coyotes will take care of the deer."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports an explosion in the number of coyotes, a non-native species that has migrated eastward, in West Virginia. The agency suspects there are 20,000 to 50,000 coyotes in the state.
Ginseng is a protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a global treaty to which the United States has agreed. The federal government must certify each year that harvesting the root will not threaten its existence.
"So if deer keep lowering the population sizes, eventually, it will definitely curtail any harvesting," argues McGraw. "In one sense, we have a legal mandate to protect this species. But more importantly, that wild harvest provides an important economic supplement to many people in rural Appalachia. It provides a cushion of sorts when times are rough."
Commercial demand is huge for ginseng, touted as a cure-all for everything from headaches and insomnia to sexual dysfunction. Even beer and soda makers are now adding it to their drinks.
The state Division of Forestry says some 10,000 West Virginians enter the woods each fall to dig them up. Last year, they collected more than 6,400 pounds worth more than $2 million.
McGraw and research associate Mary Ann Furedi studied ginseng in seven locations from 2000 to 2004, examining 800 plants every three weeks. In some spots, deer grazed on as little as 11 percent of the plants. In others, they ate every one.
Though mathematical formulas suggest West Virginia has 95 million ginseng plants, McGraw says they're seldom found in large clumps. Ginseng takes 18 months to germinate, then eight to 15 years to mature.
Although McGraw and Furedi studied ginseng, they don't think deer are going out of their way to eat it. They believe the animals are destroying many understory plants, including oak saplings, wild orchids and trilliums, a perennial in the lily family.
Hunting may be the control method that makes sense to most people, and McGraw says states should work harder to educate hunters about the downside of a large deer herd.
But Taylor, at the DNR, says people still pose the greater threat.
"Deer get blamed for everything," he says. "Deer and ginseng have coexisted in the Appalachian Mountains ever since there were Appalachian Mountains.
Source: Associated Press