30 Years of Deer Habitat Management, Part 3: What Will the Future Bring?

January 17, 2024 By: Craig Harper

The last 30 years brought rapid change to deer habitat management techniques and knowledge. It all began with food plots, and then science led us into fields and forests. Now let’s finish the history and look ahead at the future of deer habitat management.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the surge of interest in food plots that started revolutionary changes in how we manage deer and their habitat. In Part 2, we learned we could also manage deer nutrition in fields and forests. Now, let’s look at new knowledge about prescribed fire, acorn production, and more.

Prescribed Fire in Hardwoods

In the late 1990s, cutting-edge research was coming out of Clemson University showing, yes, you can burn in hardwoods without killing or harming overstory trees. I decided fire in hardwoods would be one of my primary programs at the University of Tennessee. I knew it would be difficult to sell, but I also knew it was needed to improve habitat for deer and other species.

Every hardwood stand is different. You commonly encounter different species, different tree densities, different moisture regimes, and there are different objectives for different stands, even on the same property. Cutting trees as a specific practice to increase woody browse for deer had been recognized, studied, and implemented since the mid-1900s. Identifying which browse species deer select was studied extensively in the 1960s and 70s. However, even into late 1990s, fire in hardwoods was strictly taboo. Very little information was available describing how to burn hardwoods or its effects on habitat for deer. 

Craig’s student Marcus Lashley was the first to document the increase in deer nutritional carrying capacity following fire in hardwoods, in a project started in 1999. Craig is still collecting data from this ongoing project today.

Ryan Basinger, Marcus Lashley, and Michael McCord worked on our fire-in-hardwoods project, and they documented deer forage response, as well as acorn and soft-mast response. Later, while working at Mississippi State, Marcus reported how leaves of resprouting stems following fire or cutting had such an elevated mineral content over those of seedlings or saplings because of the root-to-shoot ratio. Now, we routinely target select species of trees with a ground diameter of about 3 to 16 inches for cutting and sprouting. 

Also during this period, we collected acorns under 120 white oak trees for 10 years. Jarred Brooke, Seth Basinger, and others reported how releasing the crowns of oaks increased acorn production by 65%, but fertilizing oaks had zero effect.

Over the years, we learned how different levels of sunlight influence the height and density of the understory. When we coupled low-intensity prescribed fire with increased sunlight, we also could manipulate species composition. Jake Bones and Spencer Marshall are documenting that now. We can take stands with 30 to 50% sunlight entering the canopy and treat them with fire every one to two years during the mid to late portions of the growing season to stimulate more forbs and freshly sprouting browse and maximize nutrition available throughout the growing season.

Craig and his students have worked to investigate the effects of timing of prescribed fire for many years. Here, Seth Basinger monitors an early growing season fire in 2012.

We can use longer fire-return intervals (three to five years) in stands allowing 50 to 80% sunlight, especially on sites facing south, to maintain dense, small-diameter stems that are magnets for deer during the hunting season. And yes, we confirmed that you can apply low-intensity fire in hardwoods without harming residual trees in the overstory. In 2019, Mark Turner completed a project while at Auburn University showing it is possible even in stands of bottomland oaks!

Bringing it All Together

We essentially use the same strategies in our Forest Stand Improvement efforts as our old-field management. We kill or cut trees we don’t want, and we leave the ones we do want. How simple is that?! 

We typically kill large trees we don’t want with girdle-and-spray. We fell smaller trees we don’t want, allow those that deer eat to resprout, and spray the stumps of those that deer don’t eat (or that are non-native invasives) so they won’t resprout, thus reducing prevalence of undesirable species. All the while we are providing space and nutrients for plants germinating from the seedbank to grow, providing both food and cover, depending on how much sunlight we allow to enter the stand and how often and when we manage the stand with fire or selective herbicide applications. 

We can easily manipulate the structure for loafing in summer or bedding in fall/winter. We can guide plant species composition such that we maximize nutritional availability or we maximize cover value.

This is a 2-acre patch that is burned every two years to maintain high-quality forage for deer in the woods. The patch provides outstanding forage and is essentially free. No lime, fertilizer or seed necessary. By having such patches distributed throughout a property, the nutritional carrying capacity is significantly increased. And, note that high-quality oaks are retained in the patch. By using low-intensity fire, you do not harm the trees.

What Will the Next 30 Years Bring?

Deer habitat management has changed dramatically in 30 years. I am excited and hopeful to see what the next 30 years bring! I believe we will see more management of naturally occurring plant communities and fewer food plots. As more people learn how early successional forbs provide nutrition similar to soybeans and other food plot plantings during summer, and how much more cost-effective managing early successional communities is, fewer acres will be planted. There will still be hunting plots, no doubt, but fewer warm-season plots. 

Other species, including wild turkey, northern bobwhite, yellow-breasted chat, field sparrow, indigo bunting, and pollinators also will benefit from early succession management. We are already seeing more woods work being conducted, especially forest stand improvement, and I believe that will only increase. 

With better management of native plants in fields and woods, I think – I hope – people will understand how this is a more wholesome approach to managing wildlife than use of artificial feed. Feeding not only is unnecessary but likely harmful in a number of ways, whether by the associated toxins, spread of disease, or by unnaturally elevating numbers of mammalian predator populations that are already at historic all-time highs and placing undue stress on the very species we are trying to help. 

I believe cutting-edge research on habitat management will concentrate on how best to arrange different vegetation types and successional stages to influence deer movement and improve hunting success. We will see more excitement and strategies develop for hunting around early successional plant communities. More people will learn the dominant plants occurring in their fields and woods and develop a better appreciation of how increased plant diversity can lead to not only bigger bucks but increased wildlife diversity. 

Maybe it’s a dream, but I keep the faith. God is good!

About Craig Harper:

Dr. Craig Harper is a Professor of Wildlife Management and the Extension Wildlife Specialist at the University of Tennessee. Craig is a regular contributor to the NDA website and a Life Member of the NDA. Dr. Harper and his graduate students concentrate their work on applied management issues, including forest management, early succession management, food plot applications, and the effects of quality deer management.