Skip to main content

How to Manage Whitetails on Private Lands: Part 5

A Habitat Management Plan should begin and end with one thing — a map!

How to Manage Whitetails on Private Lands: Part 5

Water is one of the necessary elements of the deer landscape. Water can be a stream, pool, pond, lake or artificial source such as a livestock water trough. (Photo by Rick Small)

What is deer habitat? Well, any animal’s habitat includes the physical area in which a specific population lives, and includes forage or food, cover and water. In other words, deer habitat is the landscape in which your deer reside.

Just like the landscape of your own home, there are key elements that enhance the needs of daily life. Years ago, we concluded that defining the perfect whitetail landscape was the sole way to improve habitat for deer. Since the species is distributed almost over the entire western hemisphere, defining the deer landscape is a pretty tall order! Early on in our research, we learned that the elements of habitat have two attributes — form and function.

The form of habitat relates to what it looks like structurally — the whole, not the specific species of plants distributed over the landscape. Cover is an excellent example. It really does not matter what plants (and structure) are present, only that they look like what is needed for that specific type of cover. Recognition of the form (the way it looks) leads to the benefits (function) provided by that habitat component.

So, as a deer walks around your property, it is constantly assessing the form and function of every “patch” of habitat. You should think of your land as an assemblage of patches. Yet, there is another element to all this; the way the various habitat components (patches) are distributed. And how they relate to each other.

In the 1970s, we were involved in an intensive study on home range, movements and habitat preferences of whitetails in eastern Texas. To do so, we had to capture deer, place radio-collars on them, then track their locations and movements over time. At the same time, forestry was converting from uneven-aged management to even-aged management, meaning that clearcutting became the preferred silvicultural technique.

The first intrusions into even-aged management involved cutting very large areas, with little regard for the environment or wildlife habitat. At the North Boggy Slough Hunting & Fishing Club, belonging to the Temple-Inland Corporation, we were lucky enough to have acquired baseline data on deer movements collected prior to total clearcutting.

Based on these data, home range size prior to clearcutting indicated relatively small home ranges of less than 300 acres. Once clearcutting commenced, home range size and shape increased dramatically, leading us to investigate the cause(s) for this increase. It turns out the large blocks of clearcuts did not provide what the deer needed at a reasonable spacing to reduce effort to satisfy a deer’s needs!

Fortunately, Boggy Slough was so large, we had the opportunity (and permission of the company) to experiment on timber harvest size.

Long story made short, we used a tricky experimental design to learn we actually could make home ranges smaller. Even prior to clearcutting, a deer home range was classically elliptical in shape, due to the distance between the most important habitat elements. As we made smaller and smaller cuts, the home ranges not only became smaller (about 80 acres), but were almost circular! We declared this 80-acre home range size the minimum management unit!

Boggy Slough lies in the Southern Coastal Plain, a very mesic, almost subtropical climate. As our later work expanded into drier climates, the minimum home range (management unit) increased from 80 acres to 160 acres, and finally as much as 640 acres. At our research area in Mexico, we now consider the minimum management unit to be around 500 acres.

But what does this mean, and how does it apply to developing a habitat management plan for YOUR property?

Habitat Analysis for Your Property

So far, we have learned that deer have a built-in image of the habitat elements they need for their life requisites. And each of these elements must be present in the proper location and abundance. The plant composition of the elements can be irrelevant, as long as they provide the function needed.

Recommended


For example, do you think a deer really cares about the grass species it is using for bedding cover, as long as the function is satisfied? So, a deer near Coahuila, Mexico, finds just as much benefit to bedding in a Buffelgrass hillside as one near Wichita, Kansas, lying in a hillside of Giant Bluestem!

The same two deer may find equal utility of summer thermal cover in a thicket of Huisache or Chickasaw Plum. It does, however, matter where these habitat types are located in the deer landscape. So, the first step in developing a habitat management plan for your property begins with an aerial image, which is used to map the landscape elements. Today, aerial imagery is easily acquired using Google Earth or popular mobile hunting apps.

managing-whitetails-part5-inline
The attached map of North Boggy Slough Hunting & Fishing Club in 2019, shows the diversity of habitat types distributed over the landscape. Zooming in on just one part (640 acres), you can see how each unique habitat stands out to the careful eye! The dark green areas are conifers; the grayish areas are hardwoods; light green areas are food plots and fields; and clearcut areas are obvious. (Photo courtesy of Dr. James C. Kroll)

In this article, I’ve included an image of Boggy Slough in 2019, showing the diversity of habitat types distributed over the landscape. Zooming in on just one part (640 acres), you can see how each unique habitat stands out to the careful eye! The dark green areas are conifers; the grayish areas are hardwoods; light green areas are food plots and fields; and clearcut areas are obvious.

No matter what geographic area you reside in, the key elements for deer habitat will remain the same. The must-haves of the Deer Landscape are: winter thermal cover, summer thermal cover, escape cover, forage (browse and mast) and water.

Bedding cover is a subset of winter, summer and escape covers. Winter thermal cover is comprised of a fairly dense overhead canopy and dense understory that impedes snow and wind flow. Summer thermal cover is composed of a somewhat open canopy and low understory that permits wind flow. Escape Cover is any area that has vegetation tall enough and dense enough to hide a deer after it runs no more than 25 yards.

Forage habitat consists either of vegetation no taller than 4 1/2 feet and contains preferred forage species; or, trees that produce mast (hard or soft) during some time of the year. Water can be a stream, pool, pond, lake or artificial source, such as a livestock water trough. In the attached map photo, you’ll see the property I’m referencing contains all these elements in one management unit.

From a broad landscape perspective, the property is bordered on the west and north by large open areas, which are cattle operations. The owner to the west has left drainages intact, and the southern portion of this property is mixed conifer-hardwood, with some browse production. This means it is probably a forage area with adequate browse.

The owner to the north did not leave drainages intact, and there are no inherent travel corridors! The property to the south and east is an intensively managed conifer plantation, apparently thinned circa 2009 (note thinned rows). Benefits to forage growth after 14 years are minimal. There are small openings, representing logging decks; but other than those, the landscape is very low in diversity!

The property itself has two stands of conifers that, we learned from historic imagery, are 17 years old. Subsequently, they were thinned in 2012, leaving Streamside Management Zones along drainages; and the remainder of the property was clearcut at that time. The benefit of thinning to increase browse has been lost after 11 years. Drainages were left vegetated to reduce erosion, providing excellent travel corridors.

Habitat Analysis

Now, let’s develop a suggested habitat management plan for this property, using this information. When doing so, you must ask yourself: “What does this property have that the neighboring properties do not have? And, what can we do to make deer “see” this property as having the right habitat elements in the right places?

The pastures to the west and north only provide native weeds (forbaceous), which are ephemeral; and there are three ponds that deer probably have to travel to at night. The pasture to the west has a mixed conifer-hardwood area on its southern edge, which provides escape/bedding cover and browse. The conifer plantation should serve as good winter thermal cover, but not much more.

There are two drainage systems (SMZs) running roughly east to west across the property. The only permanent water sources are three ponds on adjacent properties (blue areas). The drainages are not perennial, and they go dry during the summer and early fall. At this time, deer using the property obviously have good travel corridors (east-west) through the thinned conifers and clearcut area.

The latter serves as a browsing and escape cover area. The SMZs in the pasture to the west are critical to aiding this movement pattern. Although there are missing elements on the property, each of the adjacent properties have even less to offer. It can be landscaped to become the “epicenter” of deer activity.

The first missing element is water. We recommend at least one permanent water source per 80 acres, so just a single one would do wonders! This can be done with either a new pond or a simple water trough connected to a storage tank. A preferred location for a water trough is marked on the map.

There also is a need for summer thermal cover, which is absent or scarce for all the properties. The best way to generate summer thermal cover on the property is to prescribe burn the conifer stands every other year. This also will encourage forage growth and keep the vegetation low. Note the water station is strategically located adjacent to this cover.

There is nothing in the way of agriculture in the adjacent area, creating an opportunity for both warm and cool season food plots. We recommend planting 2-3 percent of the area (ca., 2 1/2 acres) in food plots adjacent to the travel corridor SMZs. Three food plots are marked on the map, each containing about an acre or less.

Finally, it is obvious from the imagery the area marked with the yellow circle is the “hotspot” for intercepting deer crossing the property. It is a perfect “harvest” location, and the habitat management practices recommended will serve to funnel deer through this area. Subtle shooting lanes can be cleared across this location. With these improvements, the deer landscape should be highly attractive to resident and visiting deer.

This is just one example of how a Habitat Management Plan should be developed during the complete planning process. It all begins and ends with a map! Historic aerial images will help you determine what went on in the past, and they’ll guide you in interpreting the present habitat.




GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Ripcord Arrow Rests Rejuvenates Lineup with Three New Models

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Don't Sleep on Conventional Trail Cameras

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Browning Trail Cameras Announces Cellular Innovation for 2024

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

ATA 2024 Core SR First Look from Bowtech

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Air Venturi Avenge-X Classic PCP Air Rifle Reviewed

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Browning OVIX Camo: Ultimate Concealment for Any Time, Any Place

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Primos Edge Carbon Fiber Tripod Shooting Sticks

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Bowhunting Aoudad in Texas with Browning OVIX Camo

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Bowtech CP30: A Better Bow Made For The Whitetailer

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Browning's Exclusive OVIX Camo Gives You Complete Concealment

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Learn

Year-Round Deer Scouting with Moultrie Mobile Edge Cellular Trail Cams

As a whitetail hunter and landowner dedicated to pursuing great bucks each season, North American Whitetail's Blake Garl...
Gear

Start to Finish Success for Ultimate Season Bucks

North American Whitetail Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the North American Whitetail App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top North American Whitetail stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All North American Whitetail subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now