Signing the Land for Whitetails
by Jason Snavely
August 21, 2023

A successful whitetail manager applies a well-balanced mix of art and science to his management plans. A deer manager must remain inquisitive and must always focus a keen eye of observation on the results of his actions. If you’re reading this magazine, you are a deer manager! Your harvest decisions have a lasting impact, for better or for worse, on deer herd dynamics and habitat quality. While this may sound complicated, it really isn’t. In recent years, social media and online content have provided platforms for sexy, but unproven and unnecessarily complex ideas about enhancing whitetail habitats. It’s human nature to complicate and over analyze concepts that are relatively simple on the surface in attempt to sell you products (think fad diets) or services. Oftentimes, this leads to analysis paralysis and no action taken. While visiting properties, I’m reminded of our lack of focus on the basic components of desirable whitetail habitats. It’s often necessary for me to pare it down and keep it simple so my clients don’t get overwhelmed with marketing and social media fodder. In this column I’d like to focus on keeping the main thing the main thing when it comes to what habitat conditions whitetails thrive in.

We have extensive evidence that native Americans managed the land with intentional fire and vegetation management practices to enhance and attract wildlife populations. I’m sure it’s hard for you to imagine that they did all of this in the absence of how-to YouTube videos. In 1933, the father of game management, Aldo Leopold, noted that “The central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it – axe, plow, cow, fire and gun.” Of course, we prefer to swap the gun out for the stick and string. Nowhere did he mention large diesel tractors with air-conditioned cabs and yield monitors or even ATVs with all of the implements. Let’s once again bring in the KISS principle and apply it to customizing our own desirable whitetail habitats. No shiny bags needed.

Edge, Diversity and Early Successional Habitats

As a student of wildlife management in college I instantly became a better bowhunter as I studied the attraction that habitat edges have on whitetails. Edges can be obvious (think field edges) or extremely subtle and only noticeable to the critters that rely on them (think woodlots that change species composition within the woodlot). The more complex you can make your property with edges of all kinds and in different successional stages, the more time whitetails will spend on your property. Bowhunter-manager made edges are the best kinds of signatures you can apply to your whitetail property. To do this, I would grab the axe or chainsaw and incorporate timber stand improvement project throughout your hunting property.

Whitetails prefer extremely diverse habitats, well dispersed throughout their home range. It’s often helpful to imagine all of the desirable habitat components of a whitetail property (forage, security/thermal cover and water) to be well balanced on a scale. Once you tip the property in favor of one or more of these components you are taking away from the other component(s). Depending on the existing structure of your property, this may or may not be a problem. As the land manager, your role will be to balance your habitat management projects accordingly. As your signature on the landscape fades over time, it will be necessary to readdress the results of succession and reapply your management activities in the required frequency and scale.

Sticking with Leopold’s theme of applying your signature to your whitetail woods with axe (chainsaws) and fire, keep in mind that just as putting your autograph on paper fades over time, so do your management actions. Woodlot management techniques such as hack and squirt, half-cutting or timber stand improvement will eventually lead to the successional replacement of woody brush, saplings and pole timber, thanks to the sun’s energy. As the vegetation naturally progresses from open grassy meadows to mature timber, the successional value to whitetails declines dramatically. Since whitetails thrive in early successional habitats, deer managers are constantly fighting vegetative succession by reapplying their signature.

Ideally, vegetative succession of fawning cover would be maintained at or near your waist line. Equally, your intentional decision not to take action by leaving a particular species standing scribes a similar signature on the landscape. Whitetail managers often accelerate succession by planting year-round, high quality food plots. This strategy offers plant diversity by way of including more forbs, legumes, cereal grains, and brassicas to the existing seed bank that often fills in when the soil of the earth is disturbed. A successful manager must never forget that habitats continually change and mature until a form of disturbance is applied by man or nature. Whitetails thrive after habitat disturbances, such as hurricanes, tornados, and timber cuts, so if you want to maintain high daylight observations from your stand, you better sharpen your saw!

An often-overlooked aspect of land management for whitetails is to maximize all usable space on a parcel by identifying sections of your property that whitetails avoid. Developing these areas into desirable habitat features where whitetails can seek food, thermal/escape cover, water or a winning combination of these key elements will have a huge positive impact on your hunting success. As I’ve noted in past columns, fawn recruitment drives a properties productivity. As a result, it oftentimes makes sense to develop these unused areas into fawning cover that leads to increased recruitment rates. In much of the whitetail’s range fawns are dropping (or will be soon) as you read this. One technique we use to evaluate your fawning cover is to conduct the basketball toss test. Take a basketball to your managed fawning habitat and toss it backwards over your head. If you can turn around and see it, you better grab a chainsaw and get more sunlight to the forest floor!

Aldo Leopold was the first to liken man-induced conservation activities such as habitat creation to “Writing his signature on the face of his land.” I would encourage you, as a deer hunter-manager, to observe which desirable habitat components your property lacks the most and build a better habitat for your whitetails by signing your own John Hancock to the land. Nature is extremely dynamic so your signature must be reapplied once it begins to fade. When it comes to the basics of managing your land for better whitetail hunting you must never forget my favorite spin on a popular political statement of the 1990’s: “It’s the habitat, stupid!” Now, keep it simple and sign at the dotted line.

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