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7 Ways Any Hunter Can Participate in Habitat Management

Whether you own a small property, only hunt land you have permission on, or you're solely a public-land deer hunter, here's how you can still participate in habitat management.

7 Ways Any Hunter Can Participate in Habitat Management

Even if you don’t own the land you hunt on, the author says that one strategic habitat-related improvement you can accomplish is to designate a sanctuary area. Just by selecting a portion of your hunting area not to go into, you will create a safe haven for your deer herd that they will use for bedding. (Ryan Yoder photo)

Only four percent of the U.S. population purchased a hunting license in 2022, equating to around 15 million Americans taking to the fields and forests in search of game of all kinds. Some folks are upland bird hunters, some chase rabbits with beagle dogs in the winter, some plink squirrels in August, or yelp up gobblers in the spring. If you’re like me, your focus is the whitetail deer of autumn. And if you’re like me, the subject of land management seems a bit out of reach. How so, you ask? Because I’m not a landowner.

My brothers and I hunt our modest family farm here in Illinois, and we are blessed to have strong relationships with other local farmers and landowners who allow us access to their properties. We don’t lease or own a vast expanse of deer ground, and I would figure the vast majority of deer hunters in America are in the same boat. Does that mean we can’t participate in habitat management? Absolutely not!

There are many budget-friendly tasks we can do to help our deer herd, forests, knowledge, and hunting success!

Designate a Sanctuary

Almost every patch of cover I hunt has that certain “it factor” that seems to hold deer in the same location at all times of the year. One should protect these areas from as much human intrusion as possible. If you own a “Back 40,” find this area and simply leave it alone. If you share permission with a few other hunters on private ground, talk it over and resolve the same. Our family farm has a 40-acre woodlot on it, and we only enter the heart of the best cover once or twice in March looking for shed antlers. Designating a sanctuary of safety takes zero dollars to accomplish; it only requires the willpower to leave it alone. Where possible, timber improvements in these areas can be done to sweeten up the location. But before you take a saw to the first tree…

Take a Forestry Class

If you own a sprawling estate full of timber, hunt nothing but public land or just have a few trees in your yard, taking a local forestry class is a great investment in yourself and the land around you. My brother Matt and I took a forestry class together a few winters ago. The class met once a week in the evening for eight weeks and was taught by retired University of Illinois forestry professor, John Edgington. It was one of the best under $50 investments I’ve ever made in my own education. 

hand on tree
One of the best ways any deer hunter can participate it habitat management is by taking a forestry class. Typically very affordable, forestry classes can help you identify habitat issues and give you the knowledge base to correct them. (Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy)

Before the class, I could identify most trees and relate them to our local wildlife habitat with a rudimentary scope. Now, I can walk a patch of timber, diagnose what it lacks, and determine what it needs for rehabilitation. I can also see why it does or does not hold deer. In short, before you hire a logger to harvest your family farm’s timber stand or before you undertake timber stand improvement projects with a chainsaw or bulldozer, go to class first.

Take Out the Trash

Public ground, your family farm, or your knock-and-talk permission spots all have one thing in common: trash. I walk a lot of winter miles, scouting and shed hunting and I run into a bunch of garbage that I get sick of looking at. I once read a study on biodegradability, and it blew me away. The two most common pieces of trash I find in the deer woods are aluminum cans and plastic drink bottles.

According to the study, it can take 250 years for a single can and 450 years for a plastic bottle to biodegrade! When out scouting, I will sometimes pack a mesh drawstring sack in my hip pocket, and I am proud to say I have rid the woods of thousands of years’ worth of biodegrading junk! Does this make me a better deer hunter? No. Does it attract more deer to the farm? Nope. But I see trash removal as a way of quietly thanking the whitetail woods for all the joy and fun it has brought to my life. I also see it as a sign of respect to the landowners who give me permission to hunt. As my Aunt Pill used to tell us as kids, “Leave nothing behind but your footprints.”

Hydrate the Herd

The summer and early fall of 2022 were dry in my home area. By our archery opener, the natural browse species of the timber were all burnt up and held little feed value. Pockets of timber I hoped to hunt mature deer in were a ghost town. Creeks were all dried up, and deer seemed to be where the water was. Our family farm was not immune here, and procrastination on this very subject hurt my chances of taking a homegrown buck this fall.

stock tank water source
Adding a supplemental water source to your property is a budget-friendly habitat improvement that you can complete. Placing a stock tank in a location that you can access easily for refilling is the simplest way to ensure your deer herd has access to water year-round. (Blake Garlock photo)

I have been meaning to place a pair of old cattle water tanks on the edges of prime cover and bury them with a shovel or a skid-steer bucket. I have seen folks position these water units in areas accessible by ATV or UTV, allowing for manual filling as necessary out of a pull-behind dispensing tank. It would take very little cost to implement supplemental water sources with maybe a weekend of manual labor, and I feel the practice could be a tremendous asset on farms void of water in dry conditions.

Prioritize Entrance and Exit Routes

Big-league land managers might scoff at this notion, but you don’t need food plots to shoot trophy deer. I used to spend hours working on creating, tilling and designing the perfect food plot here on our farm, not to mention money in fuel, 
spray, and fertilizer. You know what I should have been doing instead? Creating secretive entrance and exit routes deeper into cover or to the very plots themselves.

hand pointing to tree in forest
The author points to a “kill site” that he created in front of one of his tree stands. By utilizing the hack-and-squirt method, the author opened the canopy and allowed for sunlight to regenerate the undergrowth. This simple, effective method improves browse in a specific location, creating a focal point for hunting whitetails. (Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy)

This type of habitat manipulation is usually grunt work, but if done properly, it can serve the property for years with minimal yearly maintenance. I often like to use creek beds to access bedding cover, but they are usually full of dead falls, snags, and thorns. A summer day spent clearing out these hunt site access routes is time well spent and can be done with nothing more than hand tools in most cases. Come November. The sneaky approach can pay big dividends, especially on still, dry mornings when noise discipline near bedding cover is near impossible.

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Identify The Problem

In the last five years, I have noticed a disturbing trend in my home hunting grounds here in Illinois; overall whitetail numbers are way down. In the late 1980s, winter deer groups used to number 50 or more on several individual farms. Nowadays, I’m lucky to see 8-12 animal groups over much greater spaces. In short, local deer hunters here face a dual-headed problem. In my observations, the two most pressing issues are unique and connected.

First off, every patch of deer cover I have ever hunted in my life has been logged at one time or another. Logging is not a bad thing if done properly, as it usually creates a flurry of new browse growth in the timber once the tree canopy is opened up. When timber is logged indiscriminately, however, lower-value trees are left while ridding the woods of mast-producing hardwood trees of higher cash value. The result? In 10 years, the whole footprint is nothing but shade-tolerant maples and beech trees that yield a thick shade canopy. Overtime, the forest floor gets little sunlight and browse species preferred by deer are gone. Some patches of cover eventually look as clear as a city park, offering minimal cover or food for deer. 

Likewise, I’ve seen some properties become overrun with invasive plant species like bush honeysuckle, buckthorn, autumn olive, and multiflora rose. The appearance to the forest floor is the opposite here, in that it gets extremely thick, with junk plants that outcompete more desirable browse species. The result on deer numbers is the same in both scenarios. Timber that provides zero cover and zero browse is just as poor for deer numbers as timber that is full of thick, non-native invasives that deer don’t care for.

deceased coyotes in back of pickup truck
Another fun and affordable way to help your deer herd is by hunting predators. Controlling predator populations is crucial in helping whitetails thrive, and one of the most prevalent predators across the whitetail’s range is the coyote. Without the efforts of predator hunters and trappers, whitetail deer populations would suffer. (Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy)

The second problem in my area? A plethora of predators. Coyote numbers have ballooned to levels I’ve never seen in my lifetime. My trail camera photos over the last 20 years prove it. Combine open timber with less cover, less available browse, and ample predators, and we have a recipe for disaster. We can expect poor carrying capacity and low fawn recruitment in these conditions. This means a shrinking local deer herd over a long-standing timeline. How do we combat this? We fight. And any deer hunter can help, regardless of landownership or parcel size!

Wage War

If you’re a blue-collar, DIY deer hunter like me, performing wholesale timber stand management is a daunting task. It’s a difficult concept to get across to your permission-granted landowners, and totally illegal on public property habitat. On the family farm here, I have taken to removing invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle. I hate the stuff. If I see a young plant, I will pull it up by the roots whenever possible. 

I have been able to talk to landowners about the invasive plant problem, and most of them usually give me permission to do the same on their properties. Though there is no way to be 100 percent in this endeavor, one can be deviously strategic. I have used a tobacco hatchet and a backpack sprayer full of proper herbicide to “hack-and-squirt” and create large openings inside timber full of the plant. Ridding the entire woods is a difficult task that will likely require heavy machinery and days of labor, but with the right mindset, one can create large pockets within a nasty thicket of invasives that deer like to frequent. 

This technique is also a great way to ambush trophy deer among invasive jungles by creating these “kill openings.” It’s tough, time-consuming work; but it can produce huge bucks in blocks of timber that outwardly seem impossible to hunt.

Predator control goes hand in hand with timber stand management practices; in my opinion, they are the two most overlooked issues facing all deer hunters. I will admit that I’m not much of a coyote hunter, nor do I have much experience running a trapline. But I know people who are proficient in both! My friend Joseph Wirth is a coyote hunting master and runs his own predator guide service called Close Encounters. We allow him permission to access our family farm to hunt the devil dogs, and he uses different techniques based on the time of the year to be successful. 

In the summer, he’s waylaying coyotes with a shotgun. In the winter, he’s taking advantage of our state’s open night season with high-quality optics, digital calls and well-tuned rifles. And he stacks up coyotes like cords of firewood! In the last six years, I have seen the impact of his work in better fawn recruitment, more turkey poults and less coyotes seen on trail camera.

The same can be said for running a trapline, a way for anyone with a few traps and a .22 pistol to learn to eliminate coyotes the old-fashioned way. Combining the two methods, anyone with the desire can usually help out his or her hunting spots. Even if you don’t own your own property, most landowners will allow permission for predator removal for the good it does for the local whitetail fawn crop.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Social media posts, outdoor television, and the countless land management consulting services popping up nationwide seem to paint the concept of habitat management with a broad brush, in my opinion. Some content makes it seem that if one doesn’t own a couple hundred acres of intensely manicured deer habitat, success will be hard to come by in the deer woods. In fact, if you don’t own or lease your own piece of whitetail habitat, the very subject of habitat management may seem imposing in a “how-does-this-apply-to-me” sort of way. Nothing could be further from the truth! Little things like those outlined here can be done by anyone on any budget, and they can be done on almost any property of a would-be whitetail habitat.




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