As you can see from the photo, deer have visited the dune. There isn’t a lot of research about deer in dunes, but there is some. White tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, are common in dune areas on the oceans as well as all along the Great Lakes. Some State Parks have even had hunts to cull the deer, although it is controversial. Deer create both beneficial and damaging impacts to dunes. The deer walking through cause no direct impact from trampling. They may make small, narrow paths but these paths are much less damaging than human-made paths or human/deer shared paths.
The beneficial impacts come in a couple of ways. Deer scat (droppings) provide appropriate fungi for pine trees. It is a complicated world in which, according to research, pine seedlings don’t necessarily sprout in areas with the appropriate fungi that help them grow. Many plants need fungi to help them gather or assimilate nutrients and pine trees are one of them. Deer, by passing through and leaving their scat, distribute the fungi that aid pine trees.
Another way they are beneficial is by browsing. Some plants–a common example would be lawn grass– do better if there is some cutting, whether by lawn mower or deer browse. A small amount of pruning in this way can trigger a plant to more robust growth. Deer have not been let in on the need for delicacy and browse on whatever they think tastes good. This makes deer browse also the downside of deer visiting the dune area. There just isn’t enough space for a resident deer without them eating everything in sight.
It is just as well that the deer was merely passing through. But, where did it come from and where was it going? Deer have been spotted in Loyola Park before (even by me). They also have been found grazing in the courtyard of a condo building. At the time the theory was that the deer travelled down the Metra tracks to Calvary Cemetery between Chicago and Evanston. From there they may have walked down Sheridan Road in the middle of the night when there wasn’t any traffic. This same theory could be true this time. Those deer were removed, but where did this deer go?
An alternative thought is one I heard concerning moose. In the course of my job I was informed that pregnant moose sometimes take a notion to go for a swim. I kid you not. This is a known phenomenon at Isle Royale National Park. Since deer and moose are in the same family, perhaps our deer was pregnant and took a notion to swim, either from Evanston or on the return trip. Because this deer was not seen, as far as I know, only the tracks as recorded in the photo.
My feelings are mixed. My initial response was joy. I was glad that life of whatever kind was returning to the dune, just as I was happy about nesting birds and rabbits. Upon reflection, these feelings were tempered by relief that the deer had moved along as the space just isn’t large enough to host even one deer, since they would just do too much damage to the plant life, as they do in other natural areas with no natural predators.
Dune Environment Influences on a Rare Great Lakes Thistle: An Investigation in Ottawa County Parks’ Rosy Mound Natural Area FYRES: Dunes Research Report #9 May 2014 Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies Calvin College Grand Rapids, Michigan by Natasha Strydhorst, Carolina Angulo, Anna Camilleri, Ethan DeVries, and Anna Selles
Ectomycorrhizal ecology under primary succession on coastal sand dunes: interactions involving Pinus contorta, suilloid fungi and deer. Ashkannejhad S, Horton TR. USDA Forest Service, Plumas National Forest, 875 Mitchell Ave, Oroville, CA 95966, USA.