By Dr. James C. Kroll
In a world moving more and more toward food plots and supplemental feeding, it’s easy to forget that the mainstay of whitetail forage is still woody browse, weeds and select grasses. Of these, browse is the most reliable; weeds and forage grasses are ephemeral by nature and thus aren’t always around when deer need them.
The greatest factor affecting browse and weed growth is sunlight. Without it, no deer plant will grow. So in wooded locations, habitat management necessarily involves taking steps to increase sunlight reaching the forest floor. That makes timber management a huge part of overall habitat management.
As is the case with livestock grazing, how you use timber management will determine the population size and health of your deer herd. There are many ways to do it, but here I’ll discuss one aspect of timber management we’ve found to significantly improve both winter and warm-season nutrition.
I’ve often written about our studies and management practices at Turtle Lake Club near Hillman, Michigan. In my view, it’s the best example of deer-habitat management in the upper Midwest. Managers Wayne and Luke Sitton have been working with our Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research since 2004, and in that span they’ve significantly influenced how deer are managed in Michigan and surrounding states. This certainly is true of their timber-management strategy.
Every property has unique challenges in providing what deer need when they need it. Timber management, grazing management, food plots, artificial water and feeding all can play a role where legal. Unfortunately, in many states feeding is now out of the question, due to regulations to control diseases such as CWD. Although that takes away an important tool, there are still plenty of choices for creating high-quality habitat. Timber harvesting is one of these.
Almost every property I’ve visited in some regions, including the upper Midwest, contains timber stands that either haven’t been managed at all or have high-density stands of conifers and hardwoods that prevent much light from reaching the forest floor. Around the Great Lakes, there are old-growth stands of oaks that developed artificially after the “Paul Bunyan” days, followed by the Great Fire of 1871. These events left large areas of Michigan and some other states deforested and burned out.
The original Great Lakes forest was dominated by conifers, with scattered groups of oaks and other hardwoods. After the fire, oak stands began to develop, leading to the almost pure stands of old oaks we see today.
Turtle Lake Club was founded in 1884, and it remains one of the oldest (if not the oldest) extant hunting clubs in the U.S. The members always have taken a conservation approach to wildlife management, but the philosophy of the first 100 years tended to focus on protecting, rather than managing, the forest.
While I really don’t blame the members for taking this “preservationist” approach, it came at the expense of good deer habitat. So beginning in ’04, we undertook the huge task of making these forests sustainable through timber management. This played well with our need to increase deer forage, particularly to supply critical nutrition in the winter.
In the South, timber stands pretty much are logged every month of the year, often causing significant soil and site damage. The advantage we have in the North is that cold temperatures and snow provide the perfect setup for low-damage logging. So at Turtle Lake winter finds our logging crews thinning old-growth oaks and conifer stands to increase deer forage.
Turtle Lake’s food-plot program is second to none, providing high-quality nutrition for up to eight months of the year. However, the four remaining months place significant stress on the herd, especially the bucks after a heavy rut. Because we can’t legally feed, we had to find ways to get deer through the toughest months. We needed to helps bucks that have lost as much as 30 percent of their body weight and all of their stored fat emerge in spring ready to grow antlers.
The food-plot program includes both warm- and cool-season varieties. At our institute, we pioneered electric and polywire fencing to protect corn/soybean plants until our deer need them in late fall and winter. Even so, this often isn’t enough. We realized that well-planned thinning in early winter would directly and indirectly produce more browse and weeds. Deer survive winter eating the twigs of preferred plants in the “deer zone.”
Our strategy at Turtle Lake is to provide additional food from the tops of thinned trees. The deer have now been “trained” to come to the sounds of chainsaws, and they even hang around until the loggers leave.
The key to good results from timber harvest is to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to strategically plan your cuts. With proper timber harvest, you get high production of deer forages during the first 5-7 years after thinning. To supplement native growth, we also broadcast clover seed in logged areas. These “plots” have proven to be highly productive and heavily used by deer. Adding clover has the additional benefit of reducing browsing pressure on native plants and regenerating oaks.
The larger oaks, after decades of being tightly packed, quickly expand their crowns and increase growth rates. This results in better mast crops while also allowing for years of improved forage growth near ground level. When coupled with increased doe harvest to further reduce browsing pressure, we’re now seeing oak regeneration in many areas of the club that previously had none.
As Linus of the Peanuts cartoon series once said, “If you want to be an ecologist, you’re going to have to stir up some dust!” That means you need to disturb the environment. Improving the quality of deer forage so it’s available 365 days a year is a matter of disturbing forests that have been “asleep” for a long time. Timber management and deer management go hand in hand, and Turtle Lake Club is a perfect example of the benefits.