Deer Predation on a White Cedar Restoration Project in Northwestern Wisconsin
by
Herbert Wagner
herbswoods@yahoo.com

"White cedar swamps have become a rarity because of poor regeneration due to deer herbivory" -- Northwest Sands, Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin

Note> Project Updates can be found following Section #11 <Note

1) Northern White Cedar Restoration Project History

In the mid-1980s we began restoring northern white cedar trees on 30 acres in Wisconsin's Northwest Sands region. Young white cedar transplants ranging in height from 3 to 12 inches were planted on suitable habitat. These small trees were gathered from highway widening projects in Douglas and Bayfield counties. One healthy specimen was recovered growing from railway ballast at legend-haunted Penokee Gap.

Early results were mixed. Lack of experience and poor techniques resulted insome losses. After surface dressings of bog peat and wood ash fertilizer were applied on upland sites much better results were obtained. Also successful were experiments with rooting cedar hardwood cuttings in sphagnum moss. The oldest and most established trees had reached a height of around 15 feet and were producing cones and a seed crop when disaster struck. Although previously not a serious problem, wintering deer now moved in with an insatiable appetite for green cedar foliage. In a short time many smaller trees were stripped bare by predatory deer.

Faced with the prospect of continual winter deer browsing the project would either have to be abandoned or taken to a new level. In the following account we provide an overview of the restoration work to date along with our observations and findings.We also describe future management techniques that should be taken if this cedar restoration project is to continue. Hopefully others may benefit from our mistakes and successes.

2) The Tree of Life

The northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is a member of the Cupressaceae family which includes
cypress, cedars, and junipers. The cedar is a stocky, medium-sized tree that grows to 50 feet in height and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. This resinous and pleasantly fragrant evergreen has thick foliage exhibiting a flat scale-like needle pattern. Often found growing on moist, rich, cool sites, the white cedar forms highly aesthetic stands on peaty soils around lakes, wetlands, and rivers. It has been widely adapted as a landscape tree.

Also known as arborvitae or "the tree of life" the name is an honest one. In 1535-36 the French explorer Jacques Cartier learned from an Indian named Domagaia how to cure scurvy by drinking an infusion made from the cedar's Vitamin C rich needles. By the mid-16th century the white cedar was being cultivated in France and soon all over Europe.

The "tree of life" name might also be applied to the white cedar's tenacity for life. Ancient specimens found growing from cliff faces on the Niagara Escarpment in Wisconsin have been dated at over 600 years old (Kahler, 2005). Examples found growing on cliffs in Canada exceed 1000 years in age. Such toughness and longevity serves as an inspiration for anyone trying to restore white cedar in areas with high deer populations.

While not the largest evergreen tree in the forest, the cedar may be the most exotic and otherworldly. There is something almost human-like in the cedar's nodding young form, haunting aroma, soft foliage, and sensual smooth fibrous bark. To the Ojibwe people the white cedar (giizhik) was considered sacred and was used for purposes ranging from canoe building to the fragrant essence of the ceremonial smudge. If spirits do inhabit trees the white cedar would be foremost in this category.

3) Natural Reproduction Rare

While the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) enjoys an ally in the powerful hunting lobby and is protected by DNR regulations, the white cedar enjoys no such lobby or champion. After the deer rifles of November fall silent and most humans have quit the woods another slaughter quietly begins. This time, however, there is no wily concealment or fleet-footed escape. This time deer are not the prey animal but the voracious predator of young white cedars and other tree species. Years of growth can be wiped out and small saplings killed outright by wintering deer. Anyone who has tried growing white cedars as ornamentals with deer present know what a problem these large herbivores can be. Attempting to restore white cedar on wild habitat is an even greater challenge.

Due to deer predation, natural reproduction of white cedar is virtually nonexistent in most areas. The destruction of seedlings and young trees effectively cuts off recruitment of future adult trees. Add the fact that white cedar lumber is commercially valuable for its decay-resistant properties, and it becomes apparent that the species is under attack at both ends of its life span. As one researcher noted: "We have a cedar resource that is aging, deer herds are larger now than ever before, and stumpage prices for cedar increase every year. The pressure on this resource has never been higher and if things continue as they are, it is certainly doomed." (Miller, 1990).

The only locales in northern Wisconsin we have observed natural reproduction of white cedar lay outside the Northwest Sands region. On heavier soils in Douglas and Ashland counties we have seen young cedars sprouting along the edge of busy highway corridors. In Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties we have encountered cedar reproducing on steep rocky slopes and cliffs.

Along highway corridors traffic patterns and resultant deer mortality probably outweighs to some degree the lure of this food source. However, these highway trees normally exhibit both browsing and/or mowing damage. On rocky talus slopes cedar regeneration probably occurs because deer with their spindly legs may shun such rough ground. Even so, deer browse damage on talus slope cedars is also evident. Only on steep rock outcrops do cedars appear immune from deer predation. However such habitat is marginal and limited in extent.

From these observations it appears that successful natural reproduction of white cedar in northwestern Wisconsin is largely absent. More typically one finds mature cedars growing in isolation or in stands with no significant reproduction. Here in the Northwest Sands region there is almost no habitat where successful cedar reproduction can take place. In this region of gently rolling pitted glacial outwash and wetlands there are no steep rocky slopes and no cliff faces. Here deer are abundant, free-ranging, and ubiquitous. Over the entire 1,956 square mile extent of the Northwest Sands there is probably not a square inch of ground suitable for a cedar sprout that is not easily accessible to a whitetail deer who will quickly munch it to oblivion. The problem is so serious that some county forestry departments have instituted moratoriums on harvesting white cedar until successful regeneration techniques can be found. Unless humans intervene this important member of the wetland forest community faces an uncertain future.

4) Project Area Habitat

Our cedar restoration project area is located in the Northwest Sands region of Wisconsin within the St. Croix River watershed. Although this large area of sandy soils is often called the sand or pine barrens it also contains many wetlands. The project area includes 30 acres of land that are enrolled in the Wisconsin's Managed Forest Law program. One of our long-term objectives in land stewardship is the restoration of white cedar on suitable mesic (moist) and forested wetland habitat.

Healthy wetlands are increasingly recognized for the key role they play in the environment. As an important late successional member of the wetland forest community white cedar should be restored to areas where it formerly grew. Not only is this species indigenous to mesic areas and swamps of the Northwest Sands, but white cedar also has high aesthetic, wildlife, ecological, biodiversity, and commercial values and benefits. Once established, these pioneer trees will serve as a seed source should future conditions become more favorable for natural reproduction of white cedar.

Potential habitat for white cedar on the project area is excellent. There is a mosaic of river edge, floodplain, shrub carr, forested wetland, mesic intermediate zone, and pine-oak uplands. The rich bio-diversity of the project area is demonstrated in that of the 56 tree species found in Wisconsin, 22 of them (or nearly 40 percent) have been identified growing naturally on these 30 acres. Bird, fish, herptile, and mammal bio-diversity is equally rich.

Wetlands on the property have an active groundwater flow with many visible seeps and springs originating from surrounding mineral sand uplands. The wetland basin is part of an extinct post-glacial lake now filled with well-decomposed peat. This peat is of near neutral pH and ranges in thickness from a few inches near the edges of the basin to several feet thick towards the basin's center.

Because the project area wetlands lie in embayments between sinuous low upland divides, there is an extensive intermediate or mesic zone that offers near optimum conditions for white cedar growth. Naturally occuring species in this mesic zone and in nearby forested wetlands include: balsam fir, white and black spruce, white pine, black ash, big-tooth aspen, musclewood, red maple, American elm, silver maple, bur oak, paper birch, speckled alder, sphagnum moss, and many other mesic and wetland plants and shrubs.

5) Historical Ecology

The nearest known natural growth white cedar stand is located about three miles east of the project area. This stand of mature trees is in a wetland setting within the Northwest Sands regional landscape. All trees have grown above the deer browse line and no reproduction has been noted. The presence of this cedar swamp demonstrates that the species is indigenous to this part of the Northwest Sands.

In the past white cedar may have grown in the immediate project area. This information was provided by the late Heinrich Steinhilpert, who came with his family to the Northwest Sands in 1905 at age 12 to homestead and farm the land. Mr. Steinhilpert lived to the ripe old age of 102 with sound mind and sharp memory. He was part of the early homesteading wave into the pine barrens during the 1890-1910 period. These settlers obtained the dubious honor and title of "jack pine farmers."

When specifically asked about white cedar growing in this vicinity, Mr. Steinhilpert stated that they were indeed found in the swamps here early on, but that these mature trees were harvested by landowners for fence posts or sold for cash income. Remains of cedar-post and barbed wire fences have been encountered on this and surrounding properties in what is now second growth red pine and oak forest.

With the cutting of these mature trees, white cedar was apparently eradicated in the vicinity of the project area. Except for those planted here in recent years no living cedar specimens have been encountered on this or surrounding properties to date. Similar eradication of cedar from areas of former habitat is probably common in other parts of the Northwest Sands and across northern Wisconsin in general.

6) The Cedar-Deer Relationship

While a popular animal with hunters and backyard feeder enthusiasts, overly abundant deer are a destructive agent to the forest. Eating a wide variety of woody and herbaceous plants, large deer populations have led to known declines in certain native plant species (Rooney and Waller, 2003). Due to its high nutritional value as a winter browse ration white cedar is eagerly sought out and consumed by deer.

While the effects of deer predation on white cedar is devastating, in the short term it can also be unpredictable. Our own cedar plantings met with success for several years with no fencing or other protection. Browsing was light or absent although the local deer population was considerable and constant. We even began to think that the deer problem had been exaggerated.

While we offer no firm explanation for this early low predation rate, our belief is that these local deer did not have a history of browsing white cedar because it is no longer an available food source in this vicinity. To back up that notion we offer the similar example of a few small hemlock tree transplants (Tsuga canadensis) also planted here. Hemlock is another preferred winter deer browse species, but one not found normally growing on the Northwest Sands. Although our unprotected hemlocks were growing next to badly deer browsed cedars the hemlocks remained untouched!

Perhaps deer can somewhat lose their insatiable "taste" for white cedar if it is not available to them over several generations. Upon reintroduction to cedar the smell and palatability may not be familiar. While deer may nibble they may not browse the tree to destruction. But should this unusual situation occur it will probably end badly as it did here. Whatever kept deer from consuming project trees showed signs of ending during the winter of 2003-04 and became a huge problem in the winter of 2004-05. After the gun hunting season ended and cold weather set in we noticed heavy browsing of our plantings. During the second winter this included a previously unheard of boldness of coming right up around buildings during the night to feed on cedars growing there. Once discovered as a winter food source nothing but a barrier (or a bullet) will save small cedars from severe set-back or worse.

Due to the number and size of project cedar trees immediately fencing them was not a practical option in the short term. For those trees growing in the vicinity of buildings we improvised a system of pole, brush, and lumber barricades, applied scent repellents, and chased deer off with loud noises.

Such efforts were somewhat effective but involved a great deal of effort and watchfulness as nocturnal deer become extremely bold and will cross barriers they would never attempt in the daytime. At night deer almost seem to become a different creature with greatly increased predatory habits. We now experienced the deer menace first-hand and found that it had not been exaggerated. On the contrary we were amazed at how quickly a few predacious deer were able to strip young white cedars; transforming lush evergreens into bare skeletons in just a few nights time.

Losses of outlying white cedars in more remote areas of the project area were heavy. Once attuned to cedar as a food source, deer have a keen ability to seek it out and rapidly strip trees of all green foliage. In fact, by the time we realized how significant the problem had become outlying trees had suffered severe damage. Without sufficient snow to conceal them not even the smallest cedars escaped harm.

7) Long Term Harm

Winter deer browsing of young white cedars quickly becomes a long-term chronic problem. Damage is not a mere pruning or clipping back of outside needles, but a complete stripping of all green foliage within the deer's reach. The most vulnerable cedars are those that have not grown above the height of feeding deer or the so-called browse line. As deer can stand and reach to around 7 feet high, a cedar needs to be at least twice that height before it can sustain itself. Sometimes cedars that are just reaching or growing above the browse line are given special treatment when their top leader is bitten or broken off.

Heavily browsed trees do not quickly bounce back. Even given care the next growing season they recover just a small fraction of their former green growth. This begins a chronic cycle of further damage during subsequent winters when these same trees will likely be visited and browsed again. This time, however, with green foliage at a minimum deer will now chew off and eat entire branches they had not molested during the previous winter. After two or three winters of repeated browsing there will be nothing left of the tree except a bare central trunk with a few badly gnawed branch stubs.

While severe browsing will kill some trees, others tenaciously cling to life by continuing to send out a few green sprouts each spring. But if deer are present during subsequent winters (as they almost certainly will be) these badly browsed cedars will have little chance of ever growing into normal trees and in time will probably perish.

While a serious problem, the ecological damage caused by large deer numbers is not generally recognized by the public. Many land owners keep hunters off their property and wish to protect and/or feed every poor little "Bambi" that ambles along. Other land owners who do hunt purposely harvest only large antlered bucks and refuse to shoot does or fawns in the belief that larger numbers of deer in general will increase future trophy buck potential.

By some accounts the present deer herd in northern Wisconsin is 10 times what it was in pre-settlement times. Natural predator pressure on deer is light to non-existent in most areas. And while the DNR acknowledges that deer populations are consistently higher than they should be, the deer herd continues to increase (WDNR, 1998). Unless some catastrophic disease event intervenes or a series of extremely harsh winters occur there seems little chance that the deer herd will be significantly reduced any time soon. As a consequence the white cedar forest component will continue to decline as existing stands age with no natural reproduction taking place.

8) Low Point

Having experienced first-hand the difficulty of white cedar re-establishment in the wild the project came to a crossroads. Should it continue or be abandoned? It was sad to see the previously lush and cheerful little cedars now badly gnawed down with years of growth lost. Sad seeing them losing their struggle for life.

On the other hand there were positive results to consider. In spite of this setback we still felt committed to the project's future. Continuing seemed like the right thing to do. We had also learned a great deal about the proper techniques of growing white cedar and had demonstrated that conditions here were excellent for cedar growth. Luxuriant foliage and cone production proved it.

In addition, although many cedars had been badly chewed up, they continued to earn their "tree of life" name by tenaciously hanging on to their green spark of existence. There was something inspiring and admirable in this beautiful, adaptable and extremely hardy tree. A hardiness that suggested damaged trees might yet be saved.

Also, from experimenting with various barrier and fencing options we had drawn some conclusions. Commercial repellents or improvised scent barriers to keep deer away could not be relied upon. Trying to hide or conceal trees didn't work either. While somewhat effective, cut brush barriers were labor intensive and tended to decay and settle under the weight of snow. The only really effective deer barrier was metal fencing.

To continue the project meant that a drastic change in strategy would be necessary. A strategy that included a strong fencing committment. But fencing would be an added expense and due to the number of trees involved they could not all be protected in the short term. Yet leaving damaged trees unprotected on wild sites was not an acceptable option either. Without protection and additional care there was no chance they would re-establish themselves as healthy trees or ever grow above the reach of predatory deer.

9) Deer Exclosures

While bold nocturnal creatures, it turns out that deer are fairly easy to manage. Unlike a black bear that will tear down a fence by brute force to reach a food source, the whitetail will normally only jump over or slip through gaps. If used properly fencing can be an effective means of protecting young cedar trees from deer predation. In spite of the additional cost and labor fence barriers would have to play a significant role in the project's future.

Having already experimented with various heights and fencing types we concluded that 14 gauge welded-wire fencing with 2x4 inch openings was a good compromise between cost and durability. When made into circular upright tubes for placement around individual trees, this grade of fence is strong enough to be self-supporting. This eliminates the added expense and labor of buying and setting fence posts. If added stability is desired the tube can be staked to the ground or some dirt heaped up around the base. During the critical winter months ice and snow will further anchor it. As the enclosed cedar tree grows larger inside the tube its branches will catch in the wire openings and also hold the deer exclosure tube firmly in place.

These simple deer exclosures are easily fabricated by cutting off lengths of fencing and then forming them into tubes by twisting the cut wire ends together. From measuring browsed and unbrowsed trees we determined that the minimum size for such tubes should be 4 feet in diameter and 5 feet tall. Deer cannot get their heads over a 5 foot high fence and at this height the tree will be completely protected while it gains stature. The 4 foot diameter is the smallest size for a self-supporting tube, but one that still provides enough room for the cedar to grow adequately wide and bushy during its shrub stage. A 4 foot diameter tube also has a small enough footprint so deer will not jump inside of it. And while foliage growing through the wire openings will be browsed off this should not significantly harm the tree and will provide some sustenance for wintering deer. The 2x4 inch openings will keep out snowshoe hares, that some sources claim are another cedar predator, although we have not experienced rodents to be a problem at this time.

Another material for fabricating effective deer exclosure may be tubes formed from steel reinforcement mesh used in concrete work. However, the 6x6 inch openings of this mesh are considerably larger. This would allow hares to slip through and deer to poke their snouts in a bit farther. However the cost of concrete reinforcement mesh is somewhat less than 14 gauge welded wire fencing and consists of heavier 10 gauge wire that would provide a stronger self-supporting deer exclosure. Although not galvanized, rust may not be a serious problem. In future we plan to experiment with tubes made from this 10 gauge reinforcement mesh and compare its long-term performance compared to tubes made from 14 gauge welded-wire fencing.

10) Recovery Nursery

As mentioned, chronically over-browsed small cedars on wild sites need additional care to recover. Fencing them as individuals may not be practical due to high up-front costs, locations in partial shade, and competition for water and nutrients. Therefore, a new technique was devised and adopted last fall. This entailed moving small damaged trees from wild sites into a protected refuge where deer cannot reach them.

Fortunately we already had a large fenced-in yard and vegetable garden area. Although it involved considerable time and effort we began digging up and transferring small injured trees from the wild and into a nursery row inside the fenced garden area. By freeze-up we had relocated some 25 trees in this manner. This coming spring we will transplant the remaining 75 or more small trees still located on wild sites.

Inside the fenced nursery area these over-browsed trees will be tended and brought back to healthy condition by regular applications of water and fertilizer. They also will be growing in amended garden soil in full sunlight. There they will also be safe from competition and predation.

Our estimate is that it will take these trees about two years to recover enough to be transplanted back onto wild sites. That time interval will allow additional fencing to be obtained for use as deer exclosures. As trees recover sufficiently they will be transplanted back onto favorable wild sites. This time, however, each will receive a deer exclosure for protection. Using this technique deer predation should be almost totally eliminated from the tree's life cycle and a high success ratio is anticipated.

Unmolested, these protected trees will grow above the 7 foot deer browse line and when they reach the self-sustaining height of around 15 feet the tube will be permanently removed. At that time the exclosure will be used to protect another tree transplanted to a wild site. Using this method the practical working life of these deer exclosures should be almost unlimited. At least long enough for an older guy like me not to see the end of their working life.

As exclosures are removed deer will be allowed to browse the lower branches and foliage. So in the end the deer will get what they want anyway, but without destroying the tree before it had a chance to establish itself. This will benefit not only deer, but also the overall ecology. Once they have overcome the deer browsing menace, these white cedar trees should have a long life possibly lasting hundreds of years as the species has few disease or insect problems. Such a cedar restortation project seems to be a case where human intervention and land stewardship can work hand-in-hand with positive long-term environmental results.

11) Conclusion: Current Winter Conditions

As this is written during the winter of 2006, we are experiencing a very mild winter thus far. Snow cover is minimal and temperatures are above normal. An easy winter means that deer numbers will increase even more.

Once again a system of improvised barriers was set up to protect trees growing near buildings. Eight newly made welded-wire tube deer exclosures were placed around some individual trees. Some of these trees will be transplanted to wild sites this spring and given tube exclosures. Outlying browsed trees will be moved into the fenced refuge area. So far this winter the only additional losses have been 2 small trees browsed when deer slipped past our barriers.

With the new year comes a new optimism for the future. Hopefully given time and dedication the "tree of life" will again grow on this richly diverse wetlands-barrens complex on the Northwest Sands. It is a natural legacy that we hope will provide positive ecological values and benefits for generations to come.


Spring Update: 6 March 2006.

With the help of the county DNR forester, we are applying to the Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant Program (WFLGP). If approved, this Grant will assist us in obtaining material and setting deer exclosures for our White Cedar Restoration Project.

The DNR forester also suggested that we consider using somewhat larger exclosures for protecting several trees at once instead of just using individual exclosures.

After doing some calculating, this turns out to be a good idea. Depending on tree size we can protect three to six cedar trees at one time by using 9-foot diameter tubes. This size exclosure yields approximately a 20 percent savings in material over three 4-foot individual tubes and much more for six individual exclosures. If the Grant comes through in a timely manner, these larger tubes would eliminate the need for moving browsed trees into our protected garden area as they could be grouped and protected directly on wild sites. Grouped in this manner, these plantings will be easy to maintain. When these multiple tree groups begin to crowd each other, excess trees can be relocated until only three trees per exclosure remain. This appears to be a good revised strategy.

However, to remain self-supporting (we wish to avoid the added expense and labor of buying and setting fence posts), these larger exclosures should be fabricated from the heavier 10-gauge steel reinforcing mesh described above in paragraph #9. The 10-gauge mesh should present little problem and I have been increasingly leaning in that direction anyway over the lighter and more expensive 14-gauge welded wire fencing material. From one 150 foot roll of the 10-gauge material five exclosures of an even 30 foot circumference can be fabricated of just over 9-feet in diameter.

Yesterday, when I spoke to a local construction supply firm to get a price quote, the owner mentioned that this 10-gauge mesh is not galvanized and would show surface rust, but added that he thought it would still last "a hundred years." Good enough!

Although our DNR forester did not mention it, there is another reason why larger exclosures may have merit. As previously mentioned, the destructive browsing effect of deer on woodland community plants has been well-documented (Rooney, T.P. and D.M. Waller, 2003). By protecting somewhat larger areas we will be creating potential micro-refuges for other vulnerable plant species. Within exclosures we may observe regeneration of other browsed-to-oblivion native woodland plants. This would be another ecological benefit of the White Cedar Restoration Project. Hopefully the Grant will be approved and funded in the near future as without protective exclosures the Project has been brought to a screeching halt by the locally over-abundant and over-protected deer herd.

If you would like to learn more about the white cedar restoration project email me at:

herbswoods@yahoo.com

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White Cedar Reference Notes


Burns, Russell M., and Barbara H. Honkala, 1990. Silvics of North America: Vol 1. Conifers; Agriculture Handbook 654. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, DC.

Davis, Alaina. Klaus Puettmann, and Don Perala, 1998. Site Preparation Treatments and Browse Protection Affect Establishment and Growth of Northern White-Cedar. Research Paper NC-33. USDA Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station: St. Paul, Minn.

Giizhik (northern white cedar) in the Ceded Territories.
Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission

Hoff, Mary, 2000. Can We Save Upland Northern White Cedar? Minnesota Plant Press 20(1)

Johnston, William F., 1977. Manager's Handbook for Northern White Cedar in the North Central States. General Techical Report NC-35. USDA Forest Service. North Central Forest Experiment Station: St. Paul, Minn.

Kahler Kathryan A., 2005. Vertically Inclined: A forest of ancient twisted trees grows from the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. Wisconsin Natural Resources (December issue).

Miller, Raymond O., 1990. Ecology and Management of Northern White-Cedar. Paper presented at the Regenerating Conifer Cover in Deer Yards workshop. North Bay, Ontario Canada.

Peattie, Donald Culross, 1991. A Natural History of Trees. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass., USA.

Rooney T.P., S.L. Solheim, and D.M. Waller, 2002. Factors Influencing the Regeneration of Northern White Cedar in Lowland Forests of the Upper Great Lakes region, USA. Forest Ecology and Management 163: 119-130.

Rooney, T.P. and D.M. Waller, 2003. Direct and Indirect Effects of Deer in Forest Ecosystems. Forest Ecology and Management 181: 165-176. 

Steinhilpert, Heinrich. Interviews with author. Various dates, 1980s.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 1998. Wisconsin's Deer Management Program. Second Edition. Pub. SS-931-98. Madison, WI

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 1999. "Northwest Sands," Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin. Madison, WI

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Siviculture and Forest Aesthetics Handbook HB 2431.5. Madison, WI

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