April 20, 2022
By Josh Honeycutt
It’s a common misconception that whitetails love big timber. In short, that isn’t true. Yes, they benefit from mature timber that offers hard and soft mast, but that’s it. It doesn’t provide the quality bedding and security cover they need, nor long-term food sources to sustain them throughout the year.
In reality, the vast majority of deer merely travel through areas of mature timber and sometimes feed in it. They generally don’t live in it, though. At least, not if they don’t have to. In most cases, deer spend the bulk of their time living in what’s called early successional habitat.
Early Successional Habitat
Whitetails are best defined as edge animals, meaning they thrive in the areas where different vegetation types or seral stages meet, such as where hardwoods meet conifers, big timber meets young timber, young timber meets grasslands, etc. Basically, it’s the juncture between two or more habitat types. These are the places that whitetails find food sources, bedding cover, and ultimately, most everything they need to survive within this early successional setting. Mature timber alone isn’t edge habitat.
Deer also thrive in areas with higher stem counts. This is due to the closely spaced tree saplings and grasslands. This mix of early successional habitat is known as edge. The perfect whitetail property doesn’t have just one phase of habitat succession. It consists of two, three, or perhaps more stages. Deer love early successional habitat for the aforementioned reasons.
As stated, there are many forms of early successional habitat, including grasslands. Deer are adept at surviving, even thriving, in what might appear a barren wasteland of stemmy terrain. Interestingly, there are many programs that encourage landowners to convert agricultural land back to early succession vegetation, or apply management to forested lands to provide a diversity of stand ages and cover types. And these are extremely valuable to wildlife.
Notable Conservation Programs
Maybe you own hunting land. Or perhaps, you don’t own land but are looking for the right property to buy. Luckily, conservation programs are available that not only help wildlife, but also pay you. Most of these are run by one of two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs — the Farm Service Agency (FSA) or Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
These opportunities are great for wildlife, hunters and landowners. The benefits they provide are immeasurable in terms of wildlife habitat recovery, protection and enhancement. While every program is different in terms of rules, objectives and level of payout (some pay the landowner and others just pay for habitat improvements), depending on your situation, most all of them can be good options.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is the second largest program in the nation. Run by the FSA, it’s designed to remove agricultural practices from lands to prevent habitat loss, erosion and water quality degradation. Since 1985, CRP has been protecting bottomlands, floodplains, forest and grassland habitats. It has benefitted deer, ducks, turkeys, pollinators and a host of other wildlife and insect species.
The Conservation Reserve Habitat Program (CREP) is a spinoff of the CRP program. It’s meant to focus on the most important environmental issues. Like the CRP program, CREP pays out a sum of money to pull lands from agricultural practices, and that’s incredibly important for wildlife.
Chris Hunter, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) habitat biologist, agrees that CRP is a vital program. He oversees western Tennessee wildlife habitat and works extensively with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Interestingly, his region is one of the busiest USDA areas in the Southeast. “CRP is a very important program for wildlife throughout the United States,” Chris reports. “CRP not only sets aside highly-erodible lands but also provides great habitat for wildlife, including deer. CRP habitat provides great bedding cover, foraging cover, as well as potential escape cover and travel corridors — especially if native shrubs are planted through practices like the CP38E bobwhite quail practice.”
Other landowner incentive programs with varying levels of support include the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP). There are also many cost-share programs out there that might not pay you, but they will at least help pay to restore the habitat on your land. Don’t overlook programs designed for the preservation of non-game or non-mammal species in your area as well.
Additionally, there are even programs designed to address conservation issues such as soil erosion, drinking water, forest and wetland restoration, natural disaster recovery and more. Regardless of what the program is designed to preserve, it will likely benefit all wildlife.
Just do your research, understand the legalities of the program, and be completely certain it’s a good move for your land management, wildlife management and financial planning goals. Also, there are other federal, state, local and private partnerships and programs to consider. Look at each of your options carefully.
Chris has experience with a variety of these programs, and his input is valuable: “CRP is probably the best option for landowners that have row crop with cropping history, especially on highly erodible lands,” he explains. “But there are other options for landowners, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP),” Chris continues. “The EQIP program is a much shorter-term program (typically a couple of years) that is a 75 percent cost share program. The government will assist with 75 percent of the cost of establishment, while the producer is responsible for 25 percent of the cost. This is a great option for those who do not have row cropping history and have pastureland or the like.
“Another great option is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP),” the TWRP biologist reports. “The CSP program is a whole farm program that is typically a 5-year contract. This program looks to contract an entire farm from farmstead, associated agriculture and Non-Industrial Private Forestland (NIPF). “There are many practices and enhancements that can be done within this program to improve habitat for wildlife, such as monarch and pollinator habitat, shrub and tree plantings, and forest stand improvement practices,” Chris explains. “If you plan on doing forest habitat work through any USDA program, please get a certified Forest Management Plan (FMP) completed first, so that the recommended practices have a better chance of being approved and carried out through the program.”
The Future of Conservation Programs
As stated, most programs pay you to enroll your land, or pay for land improvements. CRP alone has helped support as many as 37 million acres annually, especially during the program’s prime. Today, it has a nationwide cap of $25 million. Many politicians would like to see the program reduced further, or even ended. That really shouldn’t happen, though.
The importance of keeping these programs intact is paramount. Areas with CRP and other similar programs create incredible spring and summer fawning cover, which is why fawn recruitment rates in and around CRP is much higher than on neighboring forest tracts. It’s much more difficult for predators to find fawns in the jungle-like mixture of native grasses.
“If we keep losing large chunks of CRP, we could see declines in certain wildlife populations like wild turkey and an even further decline in bobwhite quail populations,” says Chris. “These are both ground-nesting species that need certain habitat to thrive and do well. In terms of white-tailed deer, CRP established and managed properly provides many habitat essentials of deer, so they will not have to travel as far to meet all their habitat requirements. Traveling makes deer vulnerable to injury and potentially susceptible to diseases that can be spread further when an animal moves outside its normal home range.”
CRP also provides year-long bedding and security cover for all deer. Therefore, overall deer densities tend to be higher on CRP land than typical forest and field ground. Many of these programs even offer food sources in the form of high-protein greens during spring and summer and browse options during fall and winter. And again, deer love these areas due to the edge habitat they create. But where are these programs headed? Some are improving. Others are merely changing. And some are going away. What’s the result? Well, it results in a net loss of preserved acres. Why? Money.
“Large portions of CRP and CREP programs are likely not being re-enrolled, because over the last several years the cost share and rental rates have seen a decline,” explains Chris. “And these programs must compete with what a landowner may earn off the farm if it is being row-cropped instead. “There is some good news on the horizon, though. I do see some of the existing acres being re-enrolled and new acres being added, because these cost share payments and rental rates are near or at an all-time high. As everything seems to be more expensive these days, the CRP program needed some changes to keep up with the quickly changing economic environment,” Chris reports.
All in all, CRP, CREP, and other conservation programs are very important for wildlife, and hunters must lead the way by sounding their voice. Talk to politicians. Raise awareness with landowners. Explain the massive benefits of conservation programs to landowners, land and wildlife. Whitetails depend on it.