You’re Managing Deer Sanctuaries All Wrong

January 19, 2022 By: Zack Vucurevich

This summer I was visiting a client, and we approached the northeast corner of his property. It was a gently sloping hillside comprised of mostly red cedar trees with invasive plants like bush honeysuckle and autumn olive intermixed, leveling out into one of his many food plots. 

“The land agent suggested I make this a sanctuary,” he said, showing me the hillside. 

“That’s a good location for one,” I said, “it’s on the edge of the property, and access is going to be difficult without coming in from your neighbor’s property. But,” I added, “you need to remove maybe 70% of the cedars.”

His jaw dropped, so I explained.

“Look at the ground. This area needs sunlight,” I said. “There is nothing growing between the cedars, to the point that the hillside is starting to erode.” (A common problem in pure stands of cedar). “Sure, a deer might bed in here, but there is nothing to browse. They won’t be spending much time in here until you can diversify this hillside. Get rid of the invasives, and leave a quarter of the cedars in small clusters of trees. Give other species a chance to establish and give deer a reason to be in here.”

Many well-intentioned deer managers are doing themselves and deer a huge disservice with the willy-nilly “sanctuary” label they are slapping on any old section of woods they elect to neglect.

Mismanagement of deer sanctuaries is one of the biggest disservices to deer herds I see on a regular basis. You can place it up there with an unwillingness to shoot does when needed as the biggest handicaps we place on ourselves as hunters and deer managers. Many, if not most, well-intentioned landowners and deer managers are doing themselves and deer herds a huge disservice with the willy-nilly “sanctuary” label they are slapping on any old section of woods they elect to neglect. 

I see it all the time during my consulting work. The signs may include an obvious browse line, an understory (if there is one) consisting of non-native, invasive plants, and hillsides composed entirely of red cedar. These areas are marginal deer habitat at best, and we shouldn’t be encouraging deer to use them. it’s time we as hunters, conservationists and land stewards educate ourselves and do better. This is my pitch to update the deer hunting community’s interpretation of the term “sanctuary” and develop a better, working definition.

Re-Defining Deer Sanctuaries

Most hunters would define a sanctuary as “a section of hunting land set aside for deer to escape hunting pressure, which we refuse to enter” – usually with the added clause “unless we are trailing a wounded deer.” This definition is outdated and careless! 

I’m here to propose that we redefine a deer sanctuary as: “A section of hunting land actively managed in a manner conducive to minimizing stress on deer during critical times of the year, especially hunting season through late winter.” 

This means extreme limitations of human intrusion from a month prior to the opening of deer season through its closing date. Notice I said “limitation” instead of “elimination” of human intrusion. There are circumstances when human intrusion during hunting season is acceptable that don’t involve a wounded deer.

The objective of a deer sanctuary is fairly straightforward. We want to create a “safe space” for deer in an effort to minimize stress on the animals during stressful times of the year. If we are trying to minimize stress, why is it we continue to designate poor quality habitat for them to escape to when times get tough? We should be using all of the same management techniques and effort we use on the rest of the land within our sanctuaries. This means providing food and cover at a level deer can easily benefit from. Usually this can be accomplished at the same time through any number of forest stand improvement (FSI) techniques. Getting rid of the invasive species is a huge step in the right direction. 

Here are some tips and guidelines to put you on the right track toward getting the most out of deer sanctuaries. 

Sanctuaries Are Not Off-Limits!

This is perhaps the most important point I want to drive home, and it cannot be emphasized enough. Deer sanctuaries are not sacred pieces of ground. They are simply a tool in your tool kit that helps you minimize stress on deer and increase hunting success and deer movement predictability during the hunting season. The general rule of thumb I recommend is do your best to stay out of sanctuaries from a month before the season opener all the way through the season’s close. Think about how much time that gives you to manage these locations to maximize their effectiveness and holding power? it’s most of the calendar year!

The reason for the one-month rule is simple: It generally gives the deer enough time to begin figuring out that they are safe there. What are most deer hunters doing during the month leading up to archery opener? We are most likely in every nook and cranny of the property, clearing entrance routes, trimming shooting lanes, placing new stands, servicing old ones, setting up ground blinds, checking trail-cameras, or planting fall food plots. The list is endless, and it is no wonder we  always feel cramped for time heading into the season opener. Use this commotion to your advantage!

As far as hunting sanctuaries, I want to disclose the fact that I have hunted sanctuaries in the past, but only with good reason. I was getting nightly pictures of a target buck entering a staging area 30 minutes after shooting light. Behind the staging area was a sanctuary, and within the sanctuary was a bedding thicket I had cut into the timber three years prior. If I wanted a realistic chance to capitalize on this buck’s consistent pattern, I needed to wait until the wind was in my favor, and set up my saddle between the bedding thicket and the staging area. I say this to drive home the point that there are exceptions to the “Do Not Enter” rule – but only with good enough reasoning that it makes sense and is worth the risk. 

Place Sanctuaries Where They Benefit You

Where to place deer sanctuaries is typically straight-forward: place them in locations that are notoriously difficult to hunt. It could be from an access issue such as topography, or swirling winds, or maybe a natural bedding thicket you always bust deer out of such as a cluster of dead ash trees that have daylighted a portion of your woods. If you have exhausted all reasonable approaches to hunting this section of property to no avail, consider making that a sanctuary. Turn that “unhuntable” ground into an asset for your hunting strategy.  

As best you can, pay attention to slope when designating a sanctuary. With a majority of the deer use expected to occur fall through winter, it is important to try to include south and southwest facing slopes within your sanctuary. In the far north, yarding areas would also be good to include. These thermal refuges are all part of minimizing stress and increasing usage. 

An interior sanctuary will always be more beneficial than a perimeter sanctuary, but this doesn’t mean perimeter sanctuaries don’t have their place. Why are interior sanctuaries preferred? When a deer is forced into these locations due to the neighbor’s sloppy or even careless hunting techniques, they are going to seek refuge wherever they can get it. I’ve seen studies of GPS-collared bucks on public land where the animal found a safe place just off the interstate or even right next to the parking lot of the WMA, because most hunters are going to walk right past him to get to the interior of the property or don’t want to hunt with 18-wheelers constantly roaring by. If we make a portion of the interior of our hunting land the sanctuary, deer will push deeper into our land when they feel stressed. They will still venture out to browse, drink, breed, and visit scrapes and food plots, but they will tend to stick tight to the known safety of the sanctuary. An interior sanctuary means a buck will spend a majority of his time within your property boundary. With a perimeter sanctuary, he will be just as likely to venture across your property line to visit the neighbor’s food plot as he is yours. 

In areas such as northern Minnesota, where a number of my clients have large portions of their property in swamps or bogs, the gravy makes itself. Nobody wants to trudge through a swamp to get to a stand location. it’s noisy, you’re out in the wide open, the mosquitoes are awful, and it is an absolute pain to drag a deer out of there. It is the very reason deer are drawn to these locations. The high spots, often indicated by clusters of small trees, are like little islands of safety where they can see and smell anything approaching from all directions. If you look at drone footage from overhead of these swamps, you will see what look like cattle trails connecting all of the high spots within the swamp where the deer have been traveling. When I see a bog lik this, I think Boom, sanctuary. I move on to the next management concern. The same can be said for regions in the Southeast with similar swamps and floodplains.

Enter Sanctuaries With a Game Plan

Always be well-intentioned when entering and improving your sanctuaries. Move with a purpose. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you removing invasives? Are you creating a bedding thicket or a temporary forest opening? Are you creating a “closed edge” by hinge cutting a line of trees in one direction to manipulate deer movement in and out of the sanctuary in your favor? These are all great reasons to enter a sanctuary, and the fear of bumping a few deer out of the sanctuary should never deter you from making such improvements. 

You don’t need to be planting food plots or filling corn feeders within your sanctuary! Simply getting sunlight to the forest floor will do wonders for both nutrition and cover.

It is important to remember our objective with the sanctuary – to minimize stress on the deer herd. This means we want to create an attractive landscape with holding power. This often boils down to cover and nutrition with emphasis being placed on the former. Luckily, both can be accomplished with the right approach. You don’t need to be planting food plots or filling corn feeders within your sanctuary! Simply getting sunlight to the forest floor will do wonders for both nutrition and cover.

A well-established native shrub layer is typically indicative of good food and cover. Red osier dogwood, American beautyberry, American plum; these are all wonderful at providing cover at the deer’s level while also providing browse in the form of leaves, buds and fruits. Consider purchasing some bareroot seedlings or plugs and sticking them in the middle of the downed tree tops while doing your FSI projects. The crowns act as a deer cage for the young plants, and they will thrive in the recently exposed sunlight. This practice allows you to combine trips into the sanctuary and maximize efficiency. 

Monitor Deer Use

As mentioned previously, I don’t hesitate to enter my sanctuaries beginning around the time I start shed-hunting – late February into early March around the Midwest. What is it I am looking for  besides antlers? Two things: evidence of deer use, and forest composition.

The deer sign should be very apparent at this time of year if your sanctuaries have done their jobs. This “safe space” for deer should have provided them refuge, free from hunter harassment throughout the extensive deer season in your area. This means the area should be riddled with sign. Deer beds and scat will be very apparent, as the leaves have been off the trees for months now, and the cold temperatures will have prevented the scat from decomposing. Signs of deer browse should be evident on the woody stems within reach of the deer, and the trails should be heavy with traffic. You should also find scrapes with licking branches that still appear serviceable.

Get in there and scout your sanctuaries post-season. If deer aren’t using your sanctuaries, it’s up to you to do something about it. Move them, get rid of them, or improve them!

If the area is sparse with sign, it is time to reevaluate. Why aren’t the deer using this area? Is the cover too sparse? Has all of the woody browse grown out of the reach of the deer? Is the aspect of that particular site north-facing, resulting in less direct sunlight and colder temperatures? These are all important questions to ponder. This is also a great time to get a game plan together for how to rectify the situation.

I was on a client’s property this past winter and was shown a section of property that had been designated sanctuary for the past 10 years. When we entered the sanctuary with a foot of stale snow on the ground, deer use should have been very apparent. It wasn’t. Sure, there was the occasional track bisecting the mature hemlock thicket, but those deer were on a mission to pass through the sanctuary, not spend time in it. There was nothing in there for them! 

I recommended a timber harvest in that area, leaving pockets of hemlock but opening up more than 50% of the canopy. The sooner, the better. Think of how many hunting seasons have gone by with this landowner thinking he was doing something beneficial for the deer, when in reality, he was babysitting an ecological desert from the deer’s perspective.

Let’s say, for instance, the canopy of the mid-story has outgrown the reach of deer within your sanctuary, a problem that is fairly common and two-fold: 1) The late-winter browse options in the form of woody stems and leaf buds are no longer available for consumption. And 2) the amount of structure associated with a quality bedding area is becoming sparse, as the trees have matured to a point of beginning to thin each other out through sunlight and nutrient competition. This situation, fortunately, is easily rectified. Cutting some of these trees low to the ground will have both short-term and long-term benefits. The trees being laid down will provide immediate structure for the deer, and the stems and buds that were previously out of their reach will now be readily consumed. Don’t be surprised if the deer even begin browsing on this newly exposed food resource the night of your forest thinning project! Some hardwood stumps, if left untreated, will begin shooting stump sprouts the following spring that will be a highly nutritious and desirable food source for years to come, but also increase the stem count of that section of woodlot, resulting in more dense cover at a deer’s level. 

During your annual inspection of a sanctuary, follow the sign. Travel the deer trails to get an understanding of how the animals are using the sanctuary. Are they spending a lot of time within its borders? Or are they simply passing through? Are last year’s improvements paying off in the form of browse and beds? You may find that you didn’t remove enough of the canopy. Or perhaps the species composition isn’t comprised of desirable species. These are all easily mitigated with a firm understanding of the deer herd and their preferences. 

Closing Thoughts

It is your property. Manage it as such. Neglecting your sanctuaries and allowing poor quality habitat to perpetuate isn’t doing the deer herd or your hunting success any favors. You should get excited to improve every square inch of it, and that includes sanctuaries. Stop treating sanctuaries like they are off-limits!

Don’t be afraid to push deer out of your sanctuary when you’re doing it during the off-season and with good intentions. Even your skittish target buck will not go re-establish a new home range on your neighbor’s property simply because you were in the sanctuary running a chainsaw for a few days.

So, this coming spring, my challenge to you is to re-evaluate your sanctuaries. Get in there and scout them post-season. Figure out whether they are being productive for your deer and your hunting strategy. Consider moving the boundaries, adding some forest openings, releasing some oak trees, or planting some shrubs post-thinning. Even doing something as small as getting rid of the invasive species will have a very tangible result as soon as the next hunting season. If deer aren’t using your sanctuaries, it’s up to you to do something about it. Move them, get rid of them, or improve them!

About Zack Vucurevich:

Zack Vucurevich is an NDA member from Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s also a wildlife biologist, habitat consultant, Level 2 NDA Deer Steward, and owner of Whetstone Habitat Solutions / info@whetstonehabitat.com / whetstonehabitat.com / Instagram: @whetstonehabitat