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Duluth students testing repellent to deter deer from feeding on young white pines

Duluth East students Jessy Perrault (left), 17, and Jacob Kohlbry, 18, measure the growth of white pine trees in the school forest with the help of agriculture sciences teacher Jenny Madone of Duluth. The students are researching the use of a systemic deer repellent on the survival of the trees in conjunction with the Natural Resources Research Institute. (Clint Austin / / 4
NRRI scientist Ryan Hueffmeier of Duluth holds pellets containing a systemic deer repellent. Duluth students are researching the use of the repellent on white pine trees in the Duluth East school forest. (Clint Austin / / 4
A white pine sapling grows in the Duluth East High School forest. Deer browsing kills many young trees in white pine restoration areas. (Clint Austin / / 4
Duluth East students Nick Feldhake (left), 17, and David Rowe, 17, record measurements to evaluate the growth of white pine trees in the school forest on Friday afternoon. The students are researching the use of a systemic deer repellent on the survival of the trees in conjunction with the Natural Resources Research Institute. (Clint Austin / / 4

David Rowe and Nick Feldhake knelt next to a white pine sapling Friday afternoon in Duluth East’s school forest, gauging whether it had been eaten away by deer.

They noted a bite of the sapling had been taken, and made the appropriate remarks next to the tree’s number before moving on to another of the 74 trees to be documented.

The East High School juniors, as part of Duluth’s FFA chapter and the school’s forestry, fish and wildlife and plant science classes, are working with the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute on a white pine restoration project.

Deer and rabbits have munched buds from the young trees here and there as they have moved through the forest, said NRRI junior scientist Ryan Hueffmeier, who is working with the students.

“I was extremely surprised there wasn’t more,” he said of saplings that had been sampled by animals.

The project involves using a natural deer repellent that works throughout the tree to prevent deer and other animals from “browsing” or eating parts of the saplings. Students planted the trees in the fall in a random fashion and Hueffmeier gave repellent to only some. On Friday, a few of the 45 or so students who worked on the project throughout the year gathering data worked in teams to measure the trees, assess their health and check for browsing.

The trees planted in the forest next to the Lakewalk are part of a larger restoration project. A rural area in Boulder contains two sections of 75 trees each. The East forest plot was meant for urban restoration, Hueffmeier said, noting it took him only 15 minutes to put repellent on the trees. If it’s effective, it could save land managers and others interested in restoration money and time. People want to bring back the “majestic” white pine, he said, which has long been killed off or threatened by deer. The repellent is an alternative to cages or bud-capping, he said, because it’s less time-consuming to use.

“Historically and culturally, white pines are an important species,” Hueffmeier said. “People like to see them on the landscape.”

Rowe, who hopes to become a forester, was interested in the restoration aspect of the project.

“White pine trees used to be so common,” he said, noting he appreciated the chance to do work that contributes to real research.

He and Feldhake, who are on the forestry team for the FFA, also tapped 64 trees this spring to make more than 5 gallons of maple syrup.

“I like the chance to be outside during the school day,” Feldhake said, “and this was an awesome opportunity to work with the NRRI.”

Teacher Jenny Madole is overseeing the students. She runs the agriculture science program, which enrolls students from both East and Denfeld high schools. This work is getting them excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, she said, such as that for soil scientists, environmental engineers or ecologists. It does that, she said, because it involves the collecting and reporting of data that the NRRI will use.

“It’s not just a science experiment,” Madole said.

Senior Krista Leusman liked watching the trees go from seedling to sapling and survive the winter.

“It’s good seeing something we’ve worked on develop that people can enjoy for many years after,” she said.

The students have done “a great job,” Hueffmeier said, and are applying what they are learning.

“We want meaningful data, but it’s the students we are making connections with,” he said.

The project will continue with future classes.