Better Deer Habitat = Better Bow Hunting
As you reflect on the 2016 deer season, you might naturally wonder what you could do now to make 2017 an even better bow hunting year. That’s what New Year’s is all about, right? Most people typically spend this time of year pondering what they did right or wrong, and how they want their new year to shape up. If you’re going to participate, why not include hunting goals and improving your deer habitat in the mix too?
Let’s face it, winter can kind of drag on a bit after January hits. After the flurry of deer hunting season and all the fall holidays, suddenly we’re faced with several months of winter with nothing to break it up. Depending on where you live, you can have a great time ice fishing or snowmobiling this time of year. And there’s always the task of checking your hunting gear and stocking up on broadheads and other equipment. But you can also focus on hunting through the form of winter deer habitat work. Better deer habitat can invite more deer to live on your property and increase the carrying capacity of your land (biological term for how many deer can live off of the resources you have). If you could multiply the food sources and high-quality bedding areas on your property with some simple habitat work this winter (when you’ve got little to do anyway, remember?), wouldn’t you consider it? It’s definitely a worthwhile use of your time.
What is the Ideal Deer Habitat?
Ideal deer habitats vary across the country, but whitetails are like any other animal. They require three things to survive that we can manipulate. If food, cover, and water aren’t present, they will find better areas to live, plain and simple. But if you add high-quality sources of all three things on even small properties, you can bet that it will become a deer magnet in no time. Since water is mostly frozen this time of year and we can’t manipulate it in the winter, let’s look at how you can address the food and cover in more detail.
Whitetails really depend on quality fall food sources to pack on the calories before winter sets in. Mature bucks, in particular, get broken down over the rut by chasing does and ignoring food plots. In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to lose one-quarter of their body weight! Therefore, they need to focus all their post-rut energy on seeking more abundant and nutritious food sources to put some fat back on their bodies. Once winter arrives, the food sources typically disappear or are covered in snow, leaving the whitetail deer diet to consist of twigs, tree limbs, and even bark (all of which are very low in calories and hard to digest). At this point, quality food is sparse and the temperatures are cold. To survive, deer metabolisms drop significantly and they don’t need as much food. They can get by just fine on deer browse alone. But if they can get adequate browse without having to travel much, they will survive much better.
In the cold temperatures and bitter winds of winter, whitetails need to stay out of the elements as much as they can. Though white-tailed deer adaptations (e.g., thick winter coats) will help them survive the cold, it will cost them less energy to stay out of the weather, to begin with. If you’ve ever paid attention to whitetail deer behavior on a late season hunt, you know how they will start to seek out secret hideaways to stay warm. Thermal cover is anything that will shield them from these winter conditions, and usually include dense conifer stands, grassy areas, or tangled deadfalls and logging debris. If they can tuck into this cover and stay in the sunlight, it’s even better.
Deer Habitat Projects
Once you know what great whitetail habitat looks like, you can start doing habitat improvement projects to make your land irresistible to whitetails. It’s often been said that a chainsaw can be a land manager’s best friend. That’s definitely true if you’re going to do some large-scale work, but you can get by with a handsaw for smaller projects. Timber stand improvement (TSI) is a forestry practice that aims to increase the value of a given forest stand by eliminating trees of lesser value. You can use the same principle to benefit whitetails and other wildlife species. Instead of only increasing the financial value of a timber stand, you can increase the value from a wildlife perspective too. By leaving conifers (mostly spruce or cedar species) and mast-bearing trees (e.g., apples, oaks, hickories, etc.), you can increase the amount of cover and food at the same time.
Start your deer habitat improvement work by really investigating your land. Decide on the size of the projects you’d like to do. If you have lots of time and resources available, you could really make a lasting impact for the wildlife on your land by improving acres at a time. If not, you can easily still see benefits from doing a few small cuts somewhere; even a few trees can change the way deer travel through a given area. Identify some good spots where you could create or enhance a deer bedding area. Any mature forest with a southern exposure is a perfect candidate for an improved bedding area. Most mature forests will have a canopy of oaks, maples, basswoods, or aspens and an understory of smaller or younger trees. By removing some of the “junk trees” that don’t have any future timber value or benefit to wildlife, you open up the forest floor to additional sunlight. Dropping even one mature tree can leave a huge hole in the canopy. This will create a hot spot this winter because deer can bed with additional tree tops to browse and cover surrounding them, and yet remain in the sun. Plus, the extra sunlight will grow a thick tangle of brambles, grasses, forbs, and young shrubs next summer. The first few years after one of these cuts produce some great deer habitat.
Instead of completely cutting these trees down, you can also try to do a hinge cut. Hinge cutting trees involves only cutting partially through the trunk and simply tipping the tree top over. This will drop the more tender twigs from the canopy to deer level this winter and provide some horizontal cover for deer to escape the wind, while leaving enough attached to still keep the tree top alive and producing nutritious buds for deer to browse on next summer. It’s a great practice to provide some instant benefits for winter deer herds, while the tangled cuts and slash piles will provide some shelter for years in the future. When whitetails can bed and eat in the same spot, you’ve got some winning winter habitat.
This winter, get outdoors and start taking a hard look at your property. Even if you’ve got a tremendous whitetail hunting property, it’s likely that the deer habitat could be improved in some way. Even if you only do a few small things, it will help the deer herd out and make the hunting even better.