Your Deer Habitat Work Supports These Struggling Wildlife Species

May 28, 2024 By: Kip Adams

Deer are King in the wildlife world. More hunters spend more time and money to manage habitat and hunt whitetails than any other species on the planet. Approximately 10 million deer hunters hit the woods annually, compared to 3 million turkey hunters, 1.5 million waterfowlers, and less than 1 million elk hunters. Deer hunters also spend over $23 billion annually with a greater than $50 billion total impact to our economy! Deer drive the hunting industry and our wildlife management programs, so their economic value is easily seen.

What’s not as easily understood is the value all that habitat managed for deer has for other wildlife species. Let’s take a look at two vegetative components of deer habitat that deer hunters routinely encourage, and I’ll show you just a few of the other wildlife species that directly benefit.

Early successional vegetation like this native prairie provides fantastic food and cover for deer – as well as a huge range of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and even important insects.

Early Successional Vegetation

Whether you refer to this component as old fields, grasslands, early successional vegetation or something else, I’m referring to open areas dominated by annual and perennial herbaceous forages. These are the successional stages that occur prior to those dominated by woody (tree) species. Deer managers love ESV because it is easy to create, costs only a fraction of what food plots do, provides tremendous cover, encourages daytime deer movement, and can provide 1,000 to 4,000 pounds of high-quality food per acre. Those are all incredible benefits for deer.

A common yellowthroat perched on a blackberry plant, one of many plant species that are abundant in early successional cover these birds need to thrive.

And who else benefits? Thousands of other insect, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species, including many that are declining and are listed as species of conservation concern. Blue grosbeaks, Bachman’s and LeConte’s sparrows, common yellowthroats, and one of our most colorful birds, the indigo bunting, all use ESV. Other birds of interest to many deer hunters that use these areas include greater prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, doves and turkeys. Other mammalian users include rabbits and hares, foxes, coyotes, badgers, bears, elk, and – in the western United States – bison and pronghorn. 

Indigo bunting.

In the insect world, ESV is incredibly important to bees. There are over 20,000 species of wild bees worldwide and over 400 species in my home state of Pennsylvania. Those bees pollinate the clover plots and apple trees we plant for deer, as well as an estimated 33% of all the food we eat! Bees are incredibly important, but unfortunately their numbers are declining. That makes those phenomenal ESV areas managed for deer all the more valuable.

Deer habitat work has enormous benefits for pollinators, so much so that many deer hunters become beekeepers. This NDA volunteer is checking a hive on NDA’s Back 40 property in Michigan.

Regarding ESV and insects, none are more closely linked than the brilliantly colored monarch butterflies. School kids throughout the United States have captured their caterpillars and watched them transform via a chrysalis into our most easily recognizable butterfly. As caterpillars, monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed leaves, and where do milkweeds grow? 

You nailed it – in old fields and grasslands containing ESV. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency that provides science-based information on ecosystems, land use and more, more than 1.5 billion milkweed stems need to be restored to sustain the eastern North American migratory population of monarch butterflies. National Butterfly Association members aren’t planting these, but National Deer Association members are! I personally have tens of thousands of milkweed plants in ESV fields I manage for deer, and fellow NDA members add to that number daily. Graduates of NDA’s Deer Steward courses impact over 17 million acres of wildlife habitat. Imagine the billions of milkweed stems in that total. Insect fans may not do much to help deer, but the same can’t be said about deer fans and insects. 

A monarch butterfly feeds on one of several native milkweed species, which are early successional vegetation. As caterpillars, monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed leaves.

Young Forests

Some people incorrectly refer to young forests as early succession, but as we learned above, early succession refers to areas dominated by herbaceous vegetation, not woody species. A young forest is dominated by woody (tree) species so it’s not ESV. Forests can be young, middle aged, or old (mature), and each provides different benefits to deer and other wildlife species. 

This eastern box turtle was sighted shortly after a prescribed fire in a young forest area. Box turtles benefit from food available in young forest cover.

Unfortunately, young forests are in short supply across much of the United States. That’s why the Young Forest Initiative was established and includes partners from federal and state natural resource agencies, land trusts, conservation organizations, town and counties, universities, timber products companies and private landowners. Young forests lack much canopy closure, so they allow abundant sunlight to reach the forest floor. This causes an explosion of plant growth dominated by young trees and shrubs and can include up to 2,000 trees per acre. This is compared to less than 100 trees per acre in a mature forest. All those seedlings provide exceptional cover and 500 to 1,000 pounds of high-quality food per acre for deer. That makes it easy to see why deer managers create these areas and why they’re important to deer.

Golden-winged warblers are among the fastest declining songbird species in North America. They require young forest cover for feeding and nesting.

And who else benefits? Thousands of other insect, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Golden-winged warblers are the poster child for young forests as they need that vegetative structure for nesting, and because they’re one of the fastest declining songbird species in North America. According to the National Audubon Society, their population has dropped nearly 70% in the past 60 years. Since there’s not a National Golden-winged Warbler Association enhancing habitat for them, those beautiful birds are lucky NDA members are.

Other species we chase with shotguns each year that use young forests include ruffed grouse, woodcock, turkeys, and rabbits. The list we chase with a camera is even longer and includes ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, eastern towhees, whip-poor-wills, American redstarts, box turtles, dragonflies and others.

American redstart.

The Southeast Deer Partnership produced the Wildtail documentary to help highlight the value of deer and deer hunters to other wildlife species and society. You can view the documentary here. This article adds the value of deer habitat to that list. 

Throughout their range, deer use a variety of vegetative communities, and fortunately for deer and the other wildlife species using those areas, deer hunters and managers do more to enhance that habitat than any other species interest group. That’s why I say, deer are King in the wildlife world!

About Kip Adams:

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and NDA's Chief Conservation Officer. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining NDA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.