Friday, May 16, 2008

Deer Candy

It is not uncommon for people to describe sagebrush country as barren, monotonous or empty. And, indeed, sagebrush can look that way when seen from the interstate at 75 miles per hour.

But healthy sagebrush country actually includes a great mix of plants--not just sagebrush. These including lush grasses, stunning wildflowers and other shrubs, including bitterbrush (pictured above). You may notice the subtle gold of a blooming bitterbrush on a springtime hike in the high desert.

If people don't notice bitterbrush much, deer are quite the opposite. They love it: BLM botanist Roger Rosentretter has called it "deer candy."

In the winter, sagebrush makes up the bulk of a deer's diet, which Rosentretter likens to the "meat and potatoes" of a deer's diet. It's highly nutritious and is in many ways a perfect winter forage.

Bitterbrush complements the sagebrush diet, and provides additional nutrients. As with human diets, a diversity of food helps deer stay healthier. Deer also digest food better when eating both sagebrush and bitterbrush.

Sometimes deer love bitterbrush a bit too much. When my wife purchased a bitterbrush plant for our yard, she left the potted plant sitting outside overnight. The next morning, a deer had clipped off the young plant right down to the soil, killing the plant.

Deer will seek out bitterbrush, wherever it is. This can make getting new plants established in xeriscaped yards. In natural areas, the shrubs play an important role in maintaining high desert wildlife populations--Matt Miller

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