As a forest resource consultant, I work with private landowners who are at both ends of the timber/wildlife spectrum. Some are only concerned with maximizing timber production while others see their property primarily as a place to hunt, with wildlife being their top priority. Today, however, more and more landowners are asking the question, “Can high yield timber management coexist with aggressive wildlife habitat management”? The answer is “yes” but it takes planning, a little creativity, and some give and take.
First, allow me to do a little housekeeping. As I write and speak about “wildlife” management in the woods of Louisiana and Mississippi, I’m primarily referring to deer. Though many species of animals and birds benefit from the practices I recommend and implement, most of the landowners and outdoor enthusiasts I encounter want to know how to get more deer on their property. They’d like some turkeys too, but deer reign supreme. Unless you have a very large tract of land, at least 500 acres, you have very little control over the population dynamics of a local wild herd. Their home ranges encompass far more territory than you have to offer and they’re going to spend a significant amount of time off of your property. What you can control (manage), even on small tracts, is the quality of habitat you have to offer. So, though the term “wildlife management” is convenient and frequently used, what I deal with mostly is deer habitat management. Specifically, my management plans revolve around offering them a place where they want to spend a disproportionate amount of time, especially the time between sunrise and sunset.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at timber and deer habitat management and how to have your cake and eat it too. Here’s the rub – a fundamental characteristic of quality deer habitat is diversity, yet our timber markets tend to favor monoculture. Deer want a mixture of trees, vines, shrubs, and forbs, yet the fastest income-producing and most renewable timber crop we have is a uniform pine plantation. Diversity and uniformity are polar opposites so what can we do to greatly increase habitat quality without sacrificing timber value?
First off, we need to understand that deer habitat management can’t be done effectively without manipulating the timber and vice-versa. What creates poor habitat is unmanaged timber stands. This holds true for both pine and hardwood. Most people look at a closed canopy pine stand, where there’s nothing on the ground but pine straw, and agree that it is poor habitat. However, they see a closed canopy mature hardwood stand as being good habitat, even though there’s no more food or cover there than in the pines. The problem with many timber tracts, pine or hardwood, is that they are mismanaged. Unproductive habitat can be found in both timber types when unmanaged.
Believe it or not, I prefer to manage pine stands for wildlife food production over hardwoods. Now I realize that, if this were Facebook, I’d probably have just gotten “unfriended” by a few people. Remember, a few paragraphs ago, I said diversity is the name of the game when it comes to deer habitat. We have a wider array of management options, at our disposal, to create that diversity when it comes to pine timberland management. I know many are probably thinking that I’ve forgotten that most hardwood stands have oaks that produce acorns and acorns are the holy grail of deer food. Acorns are indeed relished by deer. They are a high-energy, high-fat food source for many species of wildlife during the fall and winter. The biggest problem with acorns is their inconsistent production. The fact is, there are about as many years with few or no acorns as there are years with abundant acorns. When they are available, deer gravitate to them. However, they should be considered a periodic bonus and never be the backbone of a habitat management plan. Deer grow body mass, antlers, and fawns during the spring and summer, when acorns are unavailable. Nutritious green forage (forbs, leaves, and buds of woody plants) is what they require to meet the demands of growth and lactation. Well managed pine stands can produce as much or more deer forage as hardwood stands.
In my next post, I’ll discuss pine plantations and hopefully dispel the misperception that they automatically mean poor wildlife habitat.