Forest Management for White-Tailed Deer

By Jake Willard and Dave Niebruegge | October 19, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2015

When you manage a restaurant or a retail store, you make decisions based on making that business a success. Forest management works much the same way. You make a plan and set goals, which often focus on creating a diverse habitat that improves the quality of life for the animals that live there.

With white-tailed deer hunting a favorite outdoor pastime for many Missourians, forest landowners are interested in improving their property for deer habitat. What do white-tailed deer require to survive and thrive? As a highly adaptable species, they have the same requirements as other wildlife species — food, water, and cover.

Diversity is key to improving the quality of habitat on your property. Creating a spectrum of forest from thick, dense trees to open woodlands is likely to provide year-round habitat needs for whitetails.

Think Thin

Thinning a forest habitat can greatly improve its quality. Reducing the number of trees in the forest area, which can include harvesting commercial-sized trees for profit, increases the amount of light that reaches the forest floor. This in turn stimulates the growth of herbaceous plants, grasses, and shrubs. The increase in ground-level flora provides places for deer to hide, escape, and browse.

Managing trees through thinning can also change the composition of tree species, making your forest more attractive to deer. Oak trees provide an abundant food source for deer and other wildlife. During certain times of the year, acorns can comprise as much as 60 percent of a deer’s diet.

Proper thinning should also improve the health and quality of the remaining trees within the stand. Trees of poor form and quality, as well as diseased and declining trees, should be targeted for removal. The remaining trees will grow more because there is less competition.

Following a harvest or thinning operation, a stand of timber should be left in better condition than it was prior to the project.

Prescribed Burning

Another option for habitat improvement falls into the category of natural community restoration. Woodland management, or restoration, often involves a combination of thinning and prescribed burning. A woodland is an open stand of trees with a diverse community of understory vegetation comprised of forbs, grasses, and shrub species. This dense, diverse understory provides excellent cover and high-quality browse for deer.

The first step in woodland restoration is often thinning the trees to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor. To maintain this open structure and favor grasses and forbs over woody vegetation, prescribed burning is used within woodlands on a regular basis. Frequent, low-intensity fires maintain this open structure. It is imperative that burning is done under appropriate conditions so damage to large trees is minimized and risk of the fire escaping is minimal. Any burning should be done under the prescribed conditions laid out in a burn plan prepared by a natural resource professional.

Forest openings, whether temporary or permanent, can also be used to provide high-quality browse for deer. Log decks, which are areas where logs are staged for hauling to the mill, can make excellent spots for food plots or bedding areas. Through proper harvest planning, log decks can be placed in ideal locations for food plots. Food plots should be planted with a variety of green-browse species, cereal grains, or deer-friendly tree and shrub species, while bedding areas should be planted with tall native grass and forb species or simply allowed to naturally regenerate to an area of thick shrubs and tree saplings.

Think Beyond Your Boundaries

With the high cost of land today, many forest landowners have small acreages for hunting and recreation. No matter the size of the property, you can still practice good deer habitat and population management. Landowners do, however, need to think beyond the boundaries of their land.

The home range of white-tailed deer varies from a few hundred to a few thousand acres, and often expands during the fall breeding season. It may be unrealistic for an average landowner to provide everything a deer needs to keep that animal on his or her property.

Since deer will spend time on your neighbors’ properties as well as your own, your deer herd and your hunting experience will benefit greatly if there is high-quality habitat surrounding you. In forested landscapes, much of the private land is used for recreational purposes. If you ask your neighbors, you’ll probably discover they like to deer hunt and will likely be interested in providing better habitat to increase both the size of the deer herd and the number of trophy animals in that herd.

By identifying a common goal, neighboring landowners can develop deer habitat management strategies that will benefit both sides of the property line and also establish a relationship to help one another meet those goals. In some areas, this form of cooperation has developed into somewhat formalized groups called landowner cooperatives.

Cooperative Land Management

Just north of the Lake of the Ozarks in the Big Buffalo Creek watershed, a group of more than 20 Benton County landowners are putting this cooperative strategy to work. Members of the Big Buffalo Creek Landowner Cooperative, formed in 2010, have been working together to manage their properties with an emphasis on protecting water quality in the Big Buffalo Creek watershed and improving woodland habitat for wildlife — particularly white-tailed deer and turkey.

Many of the cooperative members are absentee landowners who reside in other places, but own their property for a weekend getaway, a place to hunt, and general recreation. Whether they choose to hunt or not, nearly all of the members want more wildlife on their properties, and with help from the Missouri Department of Conservation, are learning how to manage the natural resources on their land to provide more wildlife habitat.

Over the years, most of the forest within the Big Buffalo Creek Landowner Cooperative area received little to no management. As a result, the woods were overcrowded with a dense canopy that shaded the forest floor. The lack of sunlight prevented desirable young trees and other vegetation from growing and provided little browse or cover for deer and other wildlife. To remedy this situation, many cooperative members used various practices to open the forest canopy, letting sunlight in and providing food and cover deer need.

Some conducted commercial thinning, or timber harvest, to achieve their goals. Employing the services of a professional forester to select and mark the proper trees to harvest, some landowners improved habitat while also generating a little income to invest back into their land. In some cases, the timber size or quality didn’t allow for a commercial harvest, but in those situations, the work was still accomplished by completing a timber stand improvement project in their overcrowded stands of trees. By weeding out the least desirable trees and leaving the best ones, landowners improved the health of their woods and increased food and cover, making their land more attractive to deer in the area.

With guidance from Department staff, prescribed burning has been used on select sites within the Big Buffalo Creek area to manage for woodland habitat and the lush herbaceous food source they provide. Recently burned woodland sites also provide excellent brood habitat for turkey poults and quail chicks during the summer months.

Other habitat management practices implemented throughout the Big Buffalo Creek area include improving fields and forest openings by converting exotic cover, like tall fescue, to wildlife-friendly cover, like native warm season grasses, forbs, or green-browse food plots. Tree and shrub plantings have also been installed to stabilize stream banks, prevent erosion, improve edge habitat, and create travel corridors for deer.

If you are interested in managing your forestland, Conservation staff can provide you with a list of reliable resource management contractors in your area. There are also state and federal cost-share programs to assist landowners with the expense of completing habitat management on their properties. These programs are completely voluntary, and can help you realize your dream of owning your very own hunting paradise. Contact your local resource forester or private land conservationist to find out more about managing your woods for quality white-tailed deer.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
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