Effects of white-tailed deer and invasive plants on the herb layer of suburban forests.
Lack of hunting and predators and proximity to human communities make suburban forests prone to high deer abundance and non-native plant invasions. I investigated these likely drivers of community structure in the herb layers of six suburban forests in one region of New Jersey, USA. In 223 plots I assessed the herb layer response to 2.5 years with or without deer fencing and the early stage of invasion from seed additions of Microstegium vimineum, an invasive, annual grass. Non-native plants and herbaceous native plants were affected very little by fencing or M. vimineum invasion. In contrast, across all forests the combination of deer access and M. vimineum addition had a strongly negative effect on woody native percent cover. Forests differed in overall fencing effects on woody natives; their cover was greater in fenced plots in just three forests, suggesting greater deer pressure in those forests during the experiment. The early invasion by M. vimineum was greatest in two of these same forests, but was not influenced by fencing. Multi-group structural equation modelling compared two groups of forests that differed in vegetation abundance and other characteristics. It paralleled the results above and also showed no negative influence of non-native cover on native cover, even in the forests where non-native cover was greater. It identified a positive effect of light level on herb layer plants in the forests with less vegetation, and also revealed a positive effect of soil water potential (SWP) on non-native plants in the forests with more vegetation, which had higher SWP. These suburban forests within a common region varied widely in native and non-native herb layer abundance, the early success of M. vimineum invasion and the herb layer's response to early invasion and protection from deer.