April 12, 2022
By Jason Snavely
If you are reading this magazine, you are a deer manager! Your harvest decisions have a lasting impact, for better or for worse, on deer-herd dynamics and habitat quality.
While this may sound complicated, it really isn’t. In recent years, social media has fueled the popularity of many sexy — but unproven and unnecessarily complex — ideas about enhancing whitetail habitat. It’s human nature to complicate and overanalyze concepts that are relatively simple in an effort to sell products or services; think fad diets and you’ll understand what I mean. While visiting client properties around the country, I am often reminded of how little we focus on the basic components of quality whitetail habitat.
We have extensive evidence Native Americans managed the land with intentional fire and other vegetation-management practices to enhance and attract wildlife populations. I’m sure it’s hard for you to imagine they did all that in the absence of how-to YouTube videos. And way back in 1933, Aldo Leopold (the father of modern game management) noted, “The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire and gun.” Of course, we prefer to swap the gun out for a bow. Nowhere did Leopold mention large diesel tractors with air-conditioned cabs and yield monitors, or even ATVs with all the implements. Let’s once again apply the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle to managing whitetail habitat where we hunt; no shiny seed bags needed!
Living on the Edge
As a student of wildlife management in college, I instantly became a better bowhunter as I studied the attraction habitat edges have on whitetails. Edges can be obvious (think field edges) or extremely subtle and only noticeable to the critters that rely on them (think areas of the forest where the tree species composition changes). The more complex you can make your property in terms of habitat diversity — with edges of all kinds and in different successional stages — the more time whitetails will spend on your property. As a bowhunter-manager, creating these edges is the best way to stamp your signature on your hunting grounds. To get started, I would simply grab an axe or chainsaw and begin a timber stand improvement project throughout your hunting property.
As I said, whitetails prefer extremely diverse habitats, well dispersed throughout their home range. It is often helpful to imagine all the desirable components of a whitetail property (forage, security/thermal cover and water) to be well-balanced on a scale. Once you tip the property in favor of one or more of these components, you are taking away from the other components. Depending on the existing structure of your property, this may or may not be a problem. As a land manager, your role is to balance your habitat-management projects accordingly. As your signature on the landscape fades over time, it will be necessary to address the results of succession and reapply your management activities in the required frequency and scale.
A Plan of Succession
Sticking with Leopold’s theme of applying your signature to your whitetail woods with axe (chainsaws) and fire, keep in mind that just as putting your autograph on paper fades over time, so do your management actions. Woodlot management techniques such as hack and squirt, half-cutting or timber stand improvement will eventually lead to the successional replacement of woody brush, saplings and pole timber, thanks to the sun’s energy. As the vegetation naturally progresses from open, grassy meadows to mature timber, the value to whitetails declines dramatically. Since whitetails thrive in early successional habitats, deer managers are constantly fighting vegetative succession by reapplying their signature.
Ideally, vegetative succession of fawning cover would be maintained at or near your waistline. Whitetail managers also often accelerate succession by planting year-round, high-quality food plots. This strategy offers plant diversity by way of adding more forbs, legumes, cereal grains and brassicas to the existing seed bank that often fills in when the soil of the earth is disturbed. A successful manager must never forget that habitats continually change and mature until a form of disturbance is applied by man or nature. Whitetails thrive after habitat disturbances, such as hurricanes, tornados and timber cuts. So, if you want to maintain a high level of daylight deer observations from your stands, you better sharpen your saw!
No Wasted Space
An often overlooked aspect of land management for whitetails is to maximize all usable space on a parcel by identifying sections of your property that whitetails avoid. Developing these areas into desirable habitat features where whitetails can seek food, thermal/escape cover, water or a winning combination of these key elements will have a huge positive impact on your hunting success.
As I’ve noted in past columns, fawn recruitment drives a property’s productivity. As a result, it often makes sense to develop these unused areas into fawning cover that leads to increased recruitment rates. In much of the whitetail’s range, fawns are dropping, or soon will be, as you read this. One technique we use to evaluate fawning cover is to conduct the basketball toss test. Take a basketball to your managed fawning habitat and toss it backwards over your head. If you can turn around and see it, you better grab a chainsaw and get more sunlight to the forest floor!
Leopold was the first to liken man-induced conservation activities such as habitat creation to “writing his signature on the face of his land.” I encourage you, as a bowhunter/deer manager, to determine the desirable habitat components your property lacks and address those deficiencies by signing your own John Hancock on the land. Nature is extremely dynamic, so your signature must be reapplied once it begins to fade. Now, keep it simple and sign on the dotted line!