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Ginseng extinct? Deer nibbling away at plant

A study in the journal Science calculates that slow-growing ginseng could be extinct in the United States within 100 years if deer keep grazing at current rates.
Jim McGraw Ginseng
Biologist Jim McGraw, seen examining a ginseng plant in a West Virginia forest, calculates that the species is likely to become extinct in the United States within 100 years.Mary Ann Furedi / Jim McGraw via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

American ginseng, sister of the Asian wonder herb and the premier medicinal plant harvested in the United States, has two obstacles to long-term survival here: man and deer.

That’s the conclusion of West Virginia University biologist James McGraw, who says that since humans aren’t going anywhere, it’s time to do something about the deer.

In Friday’s edition of the journal Science, McGraw and colleague Mary Ann Furedi concluded that natural, slow-growing ginseng, as well as valuable forest herbs, "are likely to become extinct in the coming century" if deer keep grazing at current rates.

One solution that he believes will ensure the herb’s survival is to reintroduce mountain lions, wolves or other natural predators to the Appalachians.

“Nature is out of balance here because we’ve killed off the top predators, so the obvious solution is to restore them,” McGraw said. “But obviously, that’s not going to be everyone’s choice.”

Lions? No thanks
Curtis Taylor, chief of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife section, called it a “totally unrealistic” suggestion.

“That would be sociological suicide,” he said. “Look at what’s going on out West with the reintroduction of wolves. There are hundreds of thousands of acres there with no people, and people are fighting it. I wouldn’t even dream of proposing to people that we reintroduce mountain lions.”

Buddy Davidson, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, agreed that McGraw’s proposal was unnecessary.

“Don’t worry about the ginseng,” he said. “The coyotes will take care of the deer.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports an explosion in the number of coyotes in West Virginia. The agency suspects there are 20,000 to 50,000 of them in the state.

McGraw said another way to protect ginseng is to loosen deer hunting restrictions.

McGraw noted that easing pressure on ginseng would also help protect other plants and trees threatened by deer, among them goldenseal, white trillium and tender oak seedlings and saplings.

Cash crop for Daniel Boone
Ginseng is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which calls for the federal government to certify each year that harvesting the root will not threaten its existence.

The pressure threatens not only the species but also jobs in the harvesting and trade of wild ginseng. Asian buyers pay hundreds of dollars per pound for the wild American ginseng root, which is perceived to increase longevity and vitality.

The trade goes back to America's early history, when ginseng plants were more common and deer less common.

McGraw noted that the explorer Daniel Boone made more money from selling ginseng than animal furs, and once loaded up a boat so full with ginseng roots that it sank.