Deer dynamics of Blakely Island

Inside the eclectic sanctuary of Dr. Eric Long

Dr. Eric Long’s office is a sanctuary for the curious mind, a repository of knowledge and memories. Upon entering, one is immediately struck by the walls lined with a rich collection of ecology books on the freshly polished shelves. These shelves groan under the weight of an impressive mini ecology library, with volumes ranging from ancient botanical texts to the latest research in environmental science. Each book, lovingly worn, tells a story of countless hours spent in study and contemplation. 

Scattered throughout the room are personal photographs, capturing fleeting moments of joy and discovery. In this small part of his room, Long can be seen smiling broadly with a group of students, their faces alight with the thrill of learning. There is also a candid shot of him and his family on a rugged hiking trail.

Dr. Long Office tables that reflect memories created over a lifetime

These pictures, framed in simple, understated wood, bring warmth to the space, reminding visitors of the man behind the scholar.  But perhaps the most arresting feature of Long’s office is his collection of deer skulls. These macabre yet fascinating artifacts are displayed with a reverence that borders on sacred. Each skull is unique and carefully mounted, with its antlers stretching like gnarled fingers grasping the air. They are not trophies of conquest but relics of curiosity, each representing a story of the wild and untamed.

The room is bathed in a soft, natural light that filters through a large window overlooking a verdant campus quad. This light, coupled with the earthy scent of old paper and polished wood, creates an atmosphere of quiet contemplation. Dr. Long has created a space that is as much a reflection of his mind as it is a tribute to the natural world he cherishes.

Long shared insights into his lifelong passion for wildlife and ecology, tracing his journey from a young ornithologist to a distinguished expert in large mammal ecology.

“I have always been interested in wildlife,” Long said, reminiscing about his early experiences with birds. “I just loved the feeling of working with wild animals and figuring out what stories these things could tell me if I had a chance to track them.

Long’s master’s project involved working with cougars, which he described as a “blast,” despite the challenge of working with a small number of individuals over many years. Transitioning to his PhD, he found himself immersed in deer ecology.

“I enjoyed it because I was still working with large mammals, but there were a lot of deer,” Long explained. Over four years, he and his team captured over 2,000 deer and placed radio collars on 600, allowing them to ask and answer critical ecological questions.

Long talks about how blacktail deer got into Blakely.
He mentioned one of his memories with a deer named Pablo, who traveled on and off Blakely Island.

One significant focus of Dr. Long’s research has been the impact of hyper-abundant deer populations on ecosystems, particularly on Blakely Island.

“The population density of deer is higher than it was historically, largely due to the eradication of predators and extensive logging, which opened up the forest canopy,” Long noted.

This has led to an imbalance in which preferred tree species like Douglas fir and Western Red Cedar struggle to regenerate, while less favored species like Western Hemlock thrive. Long and his students have spent nearly two decades at Blakely, a tenure that has also led to his extensive collection of deer skulls.

“It’s kind of a research project,” Long said. “Whenever my students find a deer skull, they bring it back to me, and we take basic data on it.” This collection, now numbering over 700 skulls, has provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of ecological changes on the deer population.

In discussing the broader ecological implications, Dr. Long highlighted the concept of trophic cascades.

“If you remove predators, the deer population increases, which then decreases the vegetation they feed on,” Long explained.

This imbalance affects plant regeneration and increases the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

“Hemlock, which deer don’t prefer, is more fire-prone than other species. With the climate getting hotter and drier, these hemlocks become tinder, creating a fire ladder that can turn ground fires into devastating canopy fires,” Long said.

Long’s work underscores the complex connections within ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences of human interventions. His research, deeply rooted in both scientific inquiry and a profound respect for nature, continues to shed light on the delicate balance required to maintain healthy and sustainable environments.