Deer Habitat – Improving Deer Habitat

Deer management is habitat management. Habitat is the foundation on which your deer herd is built because habitat quality impacts not only physically, but psychologically as well. Deer get a lot of environmental cues from the habitat in which they live. Although the habitat type may change from area to area depending on where individual deer live, they all need food, cover, water, and space. These four components comprise a deer’s habitat. For practical deer management purposes, a white-tailed deer’s diet consists of primarily two classes of food, forbs and browse. In many cases, because of farming, ranching, or other land-use practices, deer habitat in your area may be degraded. However, even the poorest of habitat can be managed to provide optimal food and cover. The same tools that destroyed (or degraded) a piece of land can be used to rebuild and improve that same property for deer and other wildlife species.

Deer Habitat Management – Making it Better

Deer habitat and woody plants go hand-in-hand. However, too much brush or too little can be a real problem for deer management minded land owners. Land owners have been cutting and removing brush for years, but that is also the same plants that are the bread and butter of a whitetail’s diet. On the other hand, large wooded or forested stands are not ideal for white-tailed deer either. Large expanses of forest canopy block out sunlight and prevent the growth of browse and forb species. Because of this, most beneficial browse plants are found in forest openings or along the edges of the woodline.

As you have now read, too much or too little brush/wooded area can be bad for overall deer habitat. In general, it is best that woody or brushy areas comprise anywhere from 40-60 percent of a deer’s habitat. Thus, from a deer management stand-point the best thing you can do is maintain good cover on about 50% of your property.

Wooded or brushed areas can be opened up using chainsaws, but bulldozers and tractors make more sense because of the scope of the work. In addition, hydraulic shears can be used to cut trees and brush and promote more forbs and woody re-growth. Bulldozers are often used to create openings where large trees exists. However, anytime soil is disturbed there is a chance for erosion to take place. As a result, do not disturb the soil in areas where erosion could be a issue. Avoid areas along creeks, river, and the sides of hills and mountians.

Cattle can be used as a tool to manipulate and enhance deer habitat and plant diversity. Often times pastures and wooded areas are over-grazed and this destroys deer habitat. However, proper cattle grazing can actually improve habitat and support sound deer management. The main role of grazing in a wildlife management program is to reduce the quantity of grass, allowing sunlight to reach the lower growing forbs, which are important deer foods. Keep in mind that deer do not eat grass, but cows will eat browse and forbs–the key plants used by whitetail.

Habitat improvement can be achieved through proper grazing rates and by scheduled rest periods to allow pastures to be free of grazing by domestic livestock. Rotational grazing systems should be implemented to allow pastures to be rested (deferred) during specified times of the year. Some examples of grazing options in order of preference are: a short duration or “time control” system; a high intensity – low frequency system (HILF); a 3 pasture-1 herd system, and the 4 pasture-3 herd rotational grazing system. Each requires different degrees of involvement and fencing. If you are interested in both cattle grazing and deer management, make sure you learn more about proper grazing techniques.

Soil disturbances, such as through farming practices, have actually destroyed deer habitat in the past. However, disking can be used to improve deer habitat and increase deer foods, especially forbs. Basically, the practice of soil disturbance sets back plant succession and promotes the growth of desirable whitetail food. Disking not only creates new plant growth, but the action also promotes increased plant diversity. With that said, soil disturbance may not be feasible in your area, especially in areas with shallow, rocky soils or those vulnerable to erosion. Although soil disturbance promotes forb growth, it is not a managment practice that should be used on a large scale. Disked areas should comprise only 2-4% of your property.

Another effective tool for deer and turkey management and habitat improvement is prescribed fire. A prescribed burn program that is used properly with a grazing deferment program and deer harvest management, is an effective tool for managing deer and wildlife habitat. Burning increases plant quantity and quality, and enhances habitat diversity. Many plant species are tolerant of fire while others require fire for adequate germination. Western states are more prone to using fire effectively to improve deer habitat, but eastern states can also improve forested areas through the burning of forests understory. Prescribed burning will burn back browse species, but woody plants that deer use re-sprout quickly. Burning also returns nutrients that are tied up in dead or unsable plants to the ground. Thus, new growth after fires is much more nutritous to white-tailed deer. One thing to keep in mind–never burn more than 15-20% of your property in any one year. If you burn it all, deer will have nothing to eat!

Burned pastures can be grazed immediately to reduce grasses that compete with forbs, then deferred to allow the pasture to rest. Whitetail and exotic wildlife numbers may have to be reduced prior to burning to allow preferred plants to reestablish following prescribed fire. Portions of the property should be left in permanently unburned cover to insure that plants intolerant of fire are part of the ecosystem diversity. A burning schedule should be maintained to give priority to burning in the winter and early spring before green-up. Even with the best planning, burning “windows of opportunity” always depend on humidity, wind, and fuel moisture. The inexperienced manager should ask for assistance and/or advice from agencies such as TPW or the NRCS. While instructional materials are available, it is suggested that the novice assist on a burn conducted by an experienced person before attempting the first controlled burn.

The last management major practice that can be used in deer management is proper harvest. In the past, guns have caused the decline of many wildife species. Although game laws today attempt to manage state-wide or county-wide deer populations, the laws may not be 100% applicable to your property. Many states have personal bag limits, but individuals interested in deer management need to harvest according to the property’s bag limit. Because proper harvest is based on your local deer population and the quality of your deer habitat, it is a good idea to begin collecting and recording deer survey data. To set up a deer survey and find out more about managing your deer herd, contact the state wildlife biologist for your area

Now that you know a bit about deer habitat management, let me say that a single-species approach to wildlife management is not necessarily a holistic approach. In short, although deer management is not based on other wildlife species, many of the habitat management practices often improve habitat for other game and nongame species.

The key to managing natural resources is to use a holistic approach, where all of “Leopold’s Tools” (cow, plow, ax, fire, and gun) are applied to develop and maintain healthy ecosystems. Single species deserve less attention, while the system in which they thrive requires more. Knowing how that system functions, and applying the techniques with which that system developed (e.g., moderate cattle grazing, prescribed burning, hunting) is imperative for its continued existence.

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