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Micro-Manage Your Deer Sanctuary
Today’s deer hunter is a much more educated steward of the resource than he was only 10 years ago - and he needs to be. Our future as hunters depends upon our ability to manage the populations we hunt properly and that can’t be done on a broad scale. It has to be done on a property-by-property basis. Understanding the management process and putting even the barest fundamentals into effect produces three benefits for deer hunters. First, it promotes the image of hunting to non-hunters. It is only through a responsibility to sound management that we can move past some of the negative impressions non-hunters have regarding hunters.
Second, sound management is good for the animals. It produces an environment where deer live in balance with their habitat allowing them to thrive. You don’t see farmers letting cattle over-populate their range. Instead, they manage the herd vs. the habitat and take some cows to market while working hard to improve range conditions. It shouldn’t be any different for deer. Finally, a commitment to deer management improves the quality of the hunting. Buck to doe ratios narrow and size (both body and antlers) improves. Fawn survival is higher and the overall population is more robust.
The average deer hunter doesn’t have a huge sprawling ranch or even a good-sized farm all to himself. In most cases, hunters are stuck hunting small properties of less than 200 acres. It’s easy to look at such a small piece of land and conclude that there’s nothing that can be done to have an impact in the local deer herd. While this may be true in a broad sense, hunters all over the country have proven that they can, in fact, improve their hunting and herd quality considerably even on small properties.
You’re not suddenly going from shooting 1 ½ year old spikes to shooting Boone & Crockett bucks, but you can improve the number of older age class bucks on your property to the point where tagging a mature buck becomes an attainable dream. A realistic goal is to add at least one year to the average age of the bucks you shoot.
Small Property Deer Management
The goal is to create an environment that holds more bucks and older bucks. In the process of achieving that goal, the rest of the herd will benefit, as well. You have to micro-manage every aspect of the deer’s requirements to make your hunting area as close to perfect as possible. In other words you need to supply, security, food, deer minerals, water and a social environment that doesn’t put undue stress on the herd. Because you are dealing with a small property, you will need to be more creative to achieve these goals than managers who deal with larger ranches. Here are several practical steps you can take to improve your deer hunting area.
On most small properties, security is the one the thing that is lacking more than any other. It does little good to do everything else right and then push the deer off during the hunting season. When the pressure heats up, deer head for the thickest and most secure cover within their home range. Recent telemetry studies have shown that deer don't vacate their normal range in favor of distant unhunted areas such as parks and refuges, as many hunters believe. Instead, they're still around but they're buried in the thick stuff.
Ideally, the thickest and most secure cover within the local deer’s home range (which can cross several property lines) is on the property you hunt. By giving the bucks a safe place to hole up when the shooting starts, you provide the all-important chance for them to reach another year of age.
Creating thick cover is not very difficult if you own the property yourself. You can simply drop a bunch of trees at a time when they have leaves and you’ll have an impenetrable jungle in one year’s time. But, the task gets more challenging when you don’t own the land. There are still things you can do, however, by working directly with the landowner.
First, discuss timber stand improvement with the landowner and find out how sensitive the person is to having trees cut. Unless managed specifically for lumber, most timbered areas are comprised of a high percentage of scrub trees. One hunter and his buddy recently cut down hickory trees. The squirrels love the nuts, but the trees offer little else of value. The logs are almost worthless. You can't even get a logger to come in and bid on a hickory harvest. However, there were also some good cash trees intermixed with the hickory. By cutting the hickory down they opened up the woods in several key areas to promote accelerated growth of underbrush and to free up the cash trees such as oak and maple. In the process they created lots of thick cover.
Take advantage of the regional forester when attempting such a program on your own land or when trying to persuade a landowner of its value. Many states have district foresters that are paid through public funds and will consult for free. The forester can professionally mark trees to be cut in keeping with your goals, which instills a greater sense of confidence in the entire process. Not only will this go over better with a reluctant landowner, but the forester may even be aware of government matching funds that are available to promote timber stand improvement work.
Of course you don’t need to level the entire farm to make a difference. A football field is about 1 ½ acres. A few thickets of this size, or even smaller, located in key areas will provide much needed security cover. Try to place these sanctuaries near the center of your property where the deer will be farthest away from outside hunting pressure.
Planting switchgrass is another effective way to promote security cover, and it may be the only solution when dealing with landowners that don’t want trees cut. Often, you can get matching funds for switchgrass planting just like you can for timber stand improvement. Typically, it will cost about $70 to $100 per acre to establish switchgrass depending upon how you prepare the soil, the cost of seed and the amount of fertilizer you use. However, switchgrass lasts forever and it gets thicker and taller each year for many years. After four or five years, a thicket of switchgrass planted in good soil may stand 6 to 7 feet tall and be so thick you can barely walk through it.