Whitetail Deer Management for Improved Wildlife Habitat

Deer Management is Wildlife Management

Many landowners are interested in white-tailed deer management, but managing for deer is about managing for diversity — plant diversity. Diversity is important because habitats are more stable when a variety of plant and animal species fill different roles within those habitats, providing a buffer against negative impacts due to natural or human induced events. This allows deer to reach their genetic potential year-in and year-out. Most species are specialists, meaning that they fill a single or a few specialized roles, but whitetail deer are generalist. A diversity of plant communities makes for great deer habitat. Wildlife management, when targeted at diverse plant communities, can help each and every animal on the landscape.

Throughout much of the whitetail’s range, deer populations have expanded to the point that plant and even animal diversity is declining in many areas. In the early 1900’s, deer populations were much lower than they are today. Deer hunting regulations, seasons, and bag limits brought deer populations back from the brink of extirpation. Then eventually, these populations began to reach the carrying capacity of the land. Furthermore, the over-protection of doe herd along with changes in land use practices that promoted better deer habitat were the catalyst for dramatic increases in whitetail populations.

Deer Management is Habitat, Food Based

To manage for deer is to manage for deer foods. White-tailed deer are primarily browsers. They eat the leaves and stems from woody plants like trees, shrubs and vines. Browse species are the most stable and important component of deer habitat because they are less susceptible to impacts from weather conditions such as drought. Whitetail prefer forbs (palatable weeds), but they are much more rainfall dependent. Browse plants are the bread and butter of a deer’s diet. Deer habitat needs woody plants for deer to eat, but not all browse species are created equal. Some are more desirable than others for their taste and nutritional content, and they vary from area to area depending on plant community and soil type.

Deer will eat the ones they like best then work their way down the list. As deer numbers increase the most-liked browse starts to disappear. This is why wildlife management is important. Deer can not just be fed or allowed to simply reproduce unchecked. They must be managed. To do anything otherwise would be foolish. Too many deer causes issues. Populations that grow too high severely, negatively affect their habitat.

Whitetail Deer Population Management

Numbers are important for overall deer and habitat health, so how can this be measured? Well, there is an art and science to evaluating habitat for indications of deer overpopulation and wildlife diversity. Many areas of the US that are not under some whitetail population control are more than likely exceeding carrying capacity. This results in small-bodied deer and declining plant diversity. An easy indication of habitat overuse is the presence of what deer biologist call a browse line. A browse line is characterized by the lack of leaves on woody vegetation from the point as high as a deer can reach, about 5 feet, to the ground. Trees, shrubs and vines that have been over-browsed look like areas that have been overstocked with goats — devoid of leafy material from 5-foot and below.

Persons trained in deer management can identify Less noticeable signs of deer overpopulation. The first indication would be reduced plant species diversity on a property. When you are looking at the native plants on a property there should be a wide diversity of vegetation. When the habitat is dominated by just a few woody species, especially those that are considered less desirable deer foods, then plant diversity, wildlife diversity and deer potential is reduced.

Managing White-tailed Deer

There are many methods to manage deer populations at the property level. Of course, deer hunting is the most readily available technique to keep whitetail populations at carrying capacity of the native habitats. It only requires a hunting license to start this type of wildlife management program. In addition, hunting also can provide a source of revenue for landowners, which can then be used to improve the quality of the habitat for all wildlife species. Other methods of whitetail population control include state-administered deer permit programs. These vary from area to area, but most states have biologist that can work with private landowners free of charge.

Whitetail deer management is not just about shooting deer. Harvest is a big part of managing deer and the habitat that they live in, but deer surveys are required to estimate the deer population from year to year. Landowners can find out more about conducting surveys online or from their local state biologist. There are many different techniques and they can inform you of the one that will work best on your land. Managing deer populations is not simple, but it’s not rocket science either. Wildlife management, however, takes commitment of time and resources. It takes an extended period of time coupled with other habitat management practices to improve deer hunting and animal quality. If you are interested in deer and wildlife management, there is no better time to start than right now!

Managing for wildlife and habitat