The white-tailed deer hunting season has closed on most hunters, but there is a new season among us, something I have termed “mid-winter deer habitat management season.” Admittedly, it’s kind of a long name and unfortunately it’s not a hunting season, but the deer and other wildlife found on your property will definitely benefit from it. It’s during this mid- to late-winter time that many landowners and hunters put whitetail deer out sight and out of mind, but the animals that you will be hunting next year are still out there, right now. If you have ever needed a reason to stay out in the field during late January and February this is it.
The time from late January through the month of February is one of the best periods to perform on-the-ground deer habitat management. The practices performed during this time will positively impact the deer on your property throughout the year. These practices include prescribed burning, brush control and tree thinning, and protecting bottomland areas. These management practices will not only improve the health of the plant communities found on your property, but also increase the quantity and quality of deer foods for the whitetail that live there. Other deer management activities that can be performed during this period include spring food plot preparation and predator control. When combined, all of these practices will lead to improve deer hunting on your land.
Habitat Management Practices for Whitetail Deer
Prescribed Burning – This is one of the least expensive deer habitat management practices out there on a per acre basis, but it’s also one of the least used. The benefit of prescribed burning and well-applied fire on habitat for deer and other critters had been well documented. The time to burn for increased cool-season forb production was months ago, but you still have time to pull off a late winter burn that will promote native grasses. Grass comprises very little of a whitetail’s diet, but they will readily utilize nutrient-rich grasses following post-fire green-up. Native grasses also provide valuable fawning cover later in year. Burning as a habitat management practice should be completed before mid-February.
Brush Control & Forest Thinning – This is one of the more popular deer management practices, but sometimes the word “brush” is over-applied. Make sure that the brush being removed is not a browse plant that the whitetail in your area rely on. Most of the brush species out there do provide some benefit, whether it be from leaf or fruit, but not all. These undesirables should be the target of removal, making space for forbs and better browse plants and to decrease competition for water. Complete removal of brush can occur in small patches, but avoid the desire to open up huge blocks of land (i.e. 100 contiguous acres) in the name of deer management. Smaller clearings take more work, but they also provide more edge. Whitetail deer are edge species, so limit patch clearings to 5 to 25 acres in size, do not clear more than 50 percent of your property, and think ahead. Make sure to leave a network of wooded corridors so that deer feel secure traveling within your property.
Brush management or even forest thinning is not a one-and-done management practice. Brush management not only includes the removal of “old-growth” plants, but also the removal of those trying to establish or re-establish. Open and recently-cleared areas must be monitored at least every two to three years so that unwanted regrowth can be removed.
Riparian Fencing – It’s always a good idea to keep livestock at proper numbers for a property, but it’s especially important to limit their access to riparian areas. The term “riparian” is just a fancy word for the area immediately adjacent and around a drainage such as a creek, stream or river. Riparian areas typically have the richest soils and the highest plant diversity on a property, so fencing livestock out of these areas for the majority of the year means the high quality browse and forbs found in these areas ends up in the mouths of antler-growing bucks and fawn-rearing does. Help deer and the plants they eat on your place, take advantage of the cooler temps, and build riparian-protecting fences during late winter.
More Management Practices for Deer
Food Plot Prep – Food plots are not the be-all, end-all cure for deer management, but they can help substantially in areas where they will grow. Deer located in more arid areas are out of luck, unless irrigation and the money to do so are in place. Late winter is a great time to start prepping deer food plot sites for spring planting. Food plots are not necessarily habitat, but they can supplement it. Avoid the urge to plow under fall and winter food plots. Many will continue to grow into May or June, providing leafy forage and seeds for deer and many other wildlife species.
Predator Control – It’s tough sledding when it comes to finding food in late winter. This is true for whitetail and all other wildlife, including predators. Animals that are hungry tend to move more often, cover more ground and increase their daylight activity. All of this makes predators more susceptible to shooting and trapping during mid- and late-winter. Clean up on coyotes and feral wildlife, especially wild hogs, to minimize their impact on native animals and the habitat they need. This will not only help white-tailed deer, but also help all ground-nesting birds such as quail and turkey.