Deer and woodland stewardship

By Jamie Nack, Extension Senior Wildlife Outreach Specialist 

Chances are deer play a significant role in how you evaluate the success of your woodland stewardship.  Whether that’s because deer and deer hunting are the primary reason you own your woodland property or because deer have the ability to significantly impact forest regeneration and species composition of your woodlands….or perhaps it’s both!  

When it comes to managing deer, the key to success involves finding a balance between deer numbers and habitat.  If through careful monitoring and observation, you determine the balance between deer numbers and healthy habitat is off, you have two options, reduce deer numbers by increasing the harvest of does on the property or increase the quantity and quality of the habitat (primarily food and cover).

An individual deer will consume about 6 lbs. of food per day.  An overabundant local deer herd will eventually deplete the food available causing the herd and the habitat to be unhealthy.  Too many deer can lead to declining deer numbers, deer in poor body condition, smaller bucks and fewer fawns.  From a habitat standpoint, landowners can monitor several indicators to assess whether deer are having an impact such as severely browsed seedlings, obvious browse lines, and a forest understory dominated by species that deer do not prefer or that are resilient to browsing such as ferns, sedges, ironwood, and invasive plants such as buckthorn.  Selective feeding by deer on preferred trees and plants can affect forest plant communities by reducing tree seedling numbers, slowing seedling growth, as well as the future species composition (trees and understory plants).   

Deer browse line.

While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) manages the deer at the county level by determining the number of antlerless tags issued to either increase, decrease or maintain current levels…in actuality, on private land it is the landowner, who manages the local deer herd along with their neighbors.  Though the state allows hunting privileges, in the case of private lands, landowners are the gatekeepers, deciding if hunting will be allowed and at what level.  If you are seeing significant browse impacts by deer and you don’t currently allow hunting on your property, it might be something worth considering.   

Hunter-landowner relationships can be mutually beneficial. The hunter receives access to private land (an increasing challenge) and the landowners receives assistance in reducing deer numbers and perhaps some free labor and wild game in exchange for the access.  Hunting is not a silver bullet, but it is probably the most practical way to reduce deer impacts.  Other tools such as fencing, tree tubes, frightening, and repellents can also be effective.  As with most wildlife damage situations, a diversified approach is key to success. 

It is also worth noting that unless you own thousands of acres, your neighbors’ decisions will have an impact on the local deer population and habitat, too.  If your neighbors are harvesting a large number of deer, especially does, deer numbers may decrease.  Alternatively, if they don’t harvest does or allow hunting, it may be difficult to keep deer from impacting your woodlands in a negative way.  The best strategy, as with other management like controlling invasive plans, is to try to reach a shared goal and work together.  

Too few deer on your property?  You’ll want to temporarily suspend or reduce the doe harvest and take steps to increase the quantity and quality of habitat.  By improving habitat, you can increase the carrying capacity for deer on your property with the goal of increasing deer numbers without over browsing.  How do I increase carrying capacity you may ask?  Checkout this short article on white-tailed deer habitat needs by Rick Horton on the My Wisconsin Woods website. 

Another great resource you may want to check-out is the Wisconsin Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) a cooperative effort between the WDNR, landowners, and hunters to provide habitat and deer herd management assistance to those interested in managing their property for wildlife.  Wildlife and forestry professionals assist landowners with management practices that consider the ecological and social impacts white-tailed deer have on the landscape.  As part of the program, landowners may be eligible for additional antlerless deer permits. 

The author with her daughter and father enjoying time together outdoors and helping to balance the deer herd.

If you and your family are hunters, you understand that hunting is much more than a deer management tool.  Hunting provides the opportunity to spend time with family and friends outdoors, to consume and share wild game, a deeper connection/relationship with the land, and place-based memories that may help ensure your property stays in the family.  If you are interested in learning more about hunting or to get started check out the following links.:

Deer Management in Wisconsin (WDNR website)
Includes information on deer management, County Deer Advisory Councils (CDAC), and more. 

Learn to Hunt programs (WDNR website) 
Programs for novices of all ages and backgrounds to learn how to hunt safely and ethically.