Friday, January 3, 2014

White-tailed Deer Population Dilemma

Deer management in Pennsylvania is a controversial topic.  It has been difficult to make all happy, from the hunter to the forester to the vehicle driver to those simply wanting to avoid ticks while out recreating.  I have always been a big proponent of managing habitat when it comes to deer.  As they say, if you build it they will come.  In fact, I wrote about this in a previous post in reference to an article that appeared in Outdoor Life magazine, June 2013 (Is Habitat Quality a Reason for Fewer Deer In Pennsylvania?)  

Note the obvious browse line along the woods edge.  Browse
lines are evidence of high deer impact.
When I talk to landowners I refer to deer management as a two pronged approach: 1.) Population management through the harvest of antlerless deer, and 2.) Habitat management through the manipulation of vegetation to create natural food sources and cover.  Because of our over-abundance of mature forests and lack of young forests and early successional habitat even a moderately high deer population can have a significant impact on the forests ability to produce seedlings and sprouts, often referred to as forest regeneration.  Foresters often become the bad guys in this dilemma since we tend to want fewer deer so the forest can regenerate successfully following a harvest.  Deer hunters must understand that forest regeneration equals good deer habitat since it provides food and cover for deer. 

If the forest you hunt does not contain an abundance of understory seedlings there could be a number of reasons for that but, most often it is because there are simply too many deer for the available habitat to support.  To reduce the deer impact hunters and land managers must work together to do two things: 1.) Reduce the number of deer to a stable number more in line with what the current habitat is able to support, and 2.) Improve the habitat so the number of deer the land can support is increased.  Once this is accomplished deer numbers can be allowed to increase somewhat.  This is not easy to accomplish.

Hunters have shown, when given the opportunity, they can successfully reduce deer populations.  Although there is often reluctance to harvest antlerless deer we know it can be done successfully and deer numbers can be reduced.  The non-concurrent season in some management units does reduce our opportunities a bit but it can still be accomplished with help from programs like the Deer Management Assistance Program or DMAP. 
Old abandoned agricultural fields provide excellent deer habitat.

But what about habitat?  Often we think we just need to plant more food plots.  Are food plots really the answer?  Well, anything we can do to enhance the habitat and provide additional food will help but it certainly takes more than simply planting a few acres of clover.  It takes natural habitat management as well. That is, managing the current vegetation on your property or property you hunt through cutting trees, disking old fields, and selectively using herbicides to treat undesirable vegetation and invasive plants.  All of these practices are used to set back succession to an earlier stage of growth.  Early successional habitat or young forests provide ideal deer habitat; habitat with tons of forage available and cover for escaping predators.

To read more about these practices the University of Missouri Extension Service provides a number of excellent fact sheets of topics ranging from Enhancing White-tailed Deer Habitats on Your Property: Early Successional Vegetation to Estimating Deer populations on Your Property: Observational Data.  There are a total of 17 facts sheets in all.  All are well written, easy to understand and applicable to Pennsylvania.  To access the full listing of publications click here.

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