From coast to coast across the United States, wildlife game species get the most interest of any wildlife. This interest stems from income and recreation to private landowners through hunting, and state and federal agencies are available to help landowners interested in wildlife and habitat management. One of the best-known game species around is white-tailed deer. Deer management and deer habitat improvement are the number one drivers of land owner interest in manipulating plant communities.
Fire is an important management tool that has been almost eliminated from many habitats, but is beginning to make a comeback. Prescribed fire is generally accepted as the most economical habitat management tool available, and it’s a very effective tool for whitetail deer habitat improvement. However, we all are aware of the risks and liabilities of improper use of this tool. Prescribed fire is a great tool for managing deer habitat, but also providing high quality plants for other game and non-game species.
Prescribed fire can rejuvenate the landscape and promote vegetative growth that is beneficial to many game species. Non-game species may also benefit from prescribed burning. Birds will often come in to an area soon after a fire has passed. Many wildlife species respond favorably to the new growth after a fire, and although deer eat very little grass, they love the young, tender shoots that arrive soon after a fire.
However, some animals will respond negatively to a fire in the short-term, as litter accumulation and dense grass growth are important to their survival. But in general, a moderately applied prescribed fire regime aimed at promoting a patchwork of vegetative conditions will promote the highest diversity of plant and wildlife species.
Across much of the white-tailed deer’s range, supplemental feeding of protein pellets, cottonseed and soybeans are a very common practice. These foods, though targeting deer, find its way into the mouths of other game and non-game species. But feeders, free-choice or otherwise, are not limited to just whitetail deer. Spincast corn feeders, milo quail feeders, turkey feeders, truck/atv feeders, and others are all used as part of a wildlife management program, but non-game animals will get some too.
But wildlife and deer management does not stop with just food. Interest in deer has now further expanded water availability and the number of modified wildlife-friendly watering sites game management. Stock tanks, wildlife guzzlers, and modified water troughs are now found well-distributed throughout some properties. Wildlife need food, cover, water and space, and ranch owners are providing everything that animals need to boost production and hunting opportunities.
These management practices are great for deer, but what effect does all this supplemental feed and water have on non-target, non-game species? First, most hunters will tell you that raccoon populations seem to expand and grow smarter with every feeder design and addition. Many songbirds and rodents are also attracted to available food and water sources. Northern cardinals, lark buntings, wood rats, meadowlarks, ground squirrels and brown-headed cowbirds commonly visit feeders. Supplemental water, of course, will attract a multitude of non-game including skunks, armadillos, mockingbirds, great-tailed grackles, bobcats and coyotes, to name a few.
But it’s not all good for wildlife. Feeders and water sources may also have some detrimental effects for non-game species. This includes the increased risk of predation. Predators will seek out wildlife feeders and water sources because of the increased concentration of potential prey. In addition, congregations of animals in any one spot greatly increase chances of disease transmission.
Most landowners interested in wildlife management practice will predator control to differing degrees. Predator control ranges from an occasional coyote or feral hog being shot to intensive raccoon, skunk, coyote, and bobcat shooting and trapping. The effect on remaining non-game species may be important. In some cases, a reduction in predator numbers can lead to increased competition between managed game species and non-game animals.
Comprehensive whitetail deer management plans designed to improve the quantity and quality of white-tailed deer always include an annual harvest strategy. Harvest is the main method used to maintain deer densities within a property and to “cull” unwanted antler characteristics from the deer herd. Believe it or not, harvest strategies of game species have important impacts on non-game species.
When white-tailed deer populations are allowed to grow beyond the carrying capacity, the natural habitat gets damaged and all the non-game species that rely on that habitat suffer. Furthermore, eliminating all the deer on a property can also be detrimental to species that may rely on white-tailed deer impacts. In short, some wildlife species benefit while other species are harmed by game management. It is up to individual landowners to decide why and how they will manage their property for deer and other game species, and non-game species too.