Deer Management: Habitat Management

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The DNR has identified white-tailed deer as a Featured Species, highly valued by the citizens of Michigan, with habitat concerns that realistically can be addressed through active management. Even so, land managers must include the habitat needs and requirements of other species when considering managing habitat for deer. Management practices implemented to improve habitat for one species nearly always result in a decrease in habitat quality for others species and proper habitat planning is a process of balancing the needs and requirements of a host of species. Improving habitat for white-tailed deer decreases habitat quality for some other species, especially those that require large tracts of mature forest.

Creating and maintaining quality deer habitat that produces healthy and abundant deer is an important component of deer management in Michigan. While white-tailed deer prefer young, dense forests mixed with agricultural lands where food and cover are abundant, they are generalists that can be found in a variety of cover types ranging from grasslands, wetlands, and forests to intensively-farmed agricultural lands and even urban areas. White-tailed deer use habitats seasonally and in order for deer to thrive they must have access to habitat that meets all of their year-round requirements. Habitat conditions are different across the state because climate, land use, human population density and other factors vary by region. Impacts of habitat management efforts will be greatest when projects address specific regional needs.

Please check out the Landowner Guide to the left. Please note that while the information within this guide is very helpful, it is the responsibility of the landowner to abide by regulation changes over the years.

2011 Deer Range Improvement Partnership Initiative

The Deer Habitat Improvement Partnership Initiative (DHIPI) is a cooperative funding program being offered by Wildlife Division. This Initiative is designed to foster cooperative projects between the DNR and non-governmental organizations that will enhance deer habitat while educate the public about the importance and scientific principles of the work. In 2011 a total of $50,000 in DRIP funds will be made available through a competitive application process. Proposals for deer habitat improvement projects seeking a minimum of $2,000 and up to a maximum of $10,000 in cooperative funding will be considered. This Initiative is targeted for implementation in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) only at this time. Please click here for more information.

Habitat Quality and Management

Habitat quality in most of Michigan is adequate to support deer numbers at some level. Throughout most of the UP, the habitat factors limiting deer numbers are the availability of vegetation that provides quality browse, shelter from accumulation of deep snow, and thermal cover. These factors are particularly important in winter and early spring. Winter deer yards, typically consisting of coniferous forests dominated by northern white cedar, eastern hemlock, white pine, spruce, and balsam fir are critical to deer in these areas as they provide refuge from deep snow, cold temperatures, and windy conditions. In the NLP, conditions are generally less harsh although deer numbers are still influenced by winter severity and the quality of winter deer yards. In the SLP, intensive agriculture and scattered woodlots and swamps provide an abundance of food and cover and winter conditions are relatively mild. Deer numbers in the SLP are rarely limited by habitat quality except for some urban and intensively farmed areas where suitable cover is scarce.

Habitat management concerns and efforts vary not only across the regions of Michigan, but depend on ownership patterns as well. The proportion of public and private lands varies across the regions of the State, with 96 percent of the SLP, 74 percent of the NLP, and 51 percent of the UP under private ownership (Michigan GAP Analysis Project Final Report 2004, Michigan Center for Geographic Information 2000, 2001). Statewide, about 79 percent of the land area is privately owned. Management goals are often much different on private and public land. Generally, private and public landowners operate at different scales, with different levels of public input and under different management objectives and mandates.

Public Land

Michigan has more public land than any state east of the Mississippi River except Florida. Public land in Michigan consists primarily of National Forests (over 3 million acres), State Forests (approximately 4 million acres), State Game and Wildlife Areas (approximately 400,000 acres) and State Parks and Recreation Areas (approximately 300,000 acres). While the various types of public land are managed with different goals and objectives, they all have deer residing on them and nearly all of this public land is open to deer hunting.

National Forest lands are predominantly located in the northern two-thirds of the State and there are three National Forests in Michigan: the Ottawa, the Hiawatha, and the Huron-Manistee. Although the State of Michigan has legal authority for the wildlife found across the state, it does not dictate land management practices on these Federal lands which are managed by the United States Forest Service.

State Forest lands are found primarily in the northern two-thirds of the state, with scattered State Parks. The State Forest lands are co-managed by the Forest Management Division of DNR and the Wildlife Division of DNR. These forests cover approximately four million acres and are managed for several resources including timber, wildlife, minerals, and oil and gas; while providing recreational opportunities. The Michigan Sate Forest Management Plan provides overall direction and guidance for management of state forest lands. Regional State Forest Management plans are being developed which will focus on a particular region and will include more details and direction. For annual operating plans, the State forest system has 10 percent of its land base inventoried every year and forest treatments are proposed by DNR professionals. These treatments or prescriptions are posted for public review and comment before final approvals are made at the compartment review meeting. There are also planning documents and management guidance for specific areas such as Natural Areas and Wildlife Flooding Areas.

In southern Michigan, less than four percent of the land is publicly owned. Public lands in southern Michigan consist primarily of State Game and Wildlife Areas, State Parks and Recreation Areas. State Game and Wildlife Areas are managed for wildlife and wildlife-associated recreation, while Parks and Recreation Areas are managed for a variety of uses focusing on recreation but including preservation and management of Michigan's unique natural resources.

Federal and State agencies manage public lands with a diverse set of goals and objectives involving conservation and restoration of native plants, animals and communities along with provision of opportunities for associated recreation. Management efforts often seek to address habitat for game and non-game species alike with special consideration for Featured Species (highly valued species at a local, regional, or statewide level) and for rare or threatened species. Habitat management activities include: commercial and non-commercial timber operations; planting of herbaceous vegetation for nesting, thermal and escape cover; maintenance of wetlands and wildlife openings; and the application of prescribed fire, mowing, and herbicide. In some cases, food plots are planted to provide highly attractive food sources for deer and other wildlife.

The most influential treatments that occur on public land are commercial timber sales, which can result in a diverse array of wildlife habitat conditions. Deer benefit when felled tops are available during logging operations, particularly in winter when other forage is scarce, and again when new tree saplings regenerate the harvested stands. Additional forest treatments implemented on public land include planting, seeding, burning, and scarifying to regenerate forests after harvest. In addition, wildlife biologists and foresters implement non-commercial treatments such as planting of tree seedlings, herbaceous plantings in forest openings, prescribed burns to reduce woody encroachment, and roller chopping to create or limit brush growth. These treatments are frequently funded by DRIP and may include public partners, such as conservation organizations or local sportsman groups.

A manual created to guide implementation of DRIP in the 1970's emphasized the creation of young forests dominated by aspen, upland brush, grass openings, oak, and other forest types that are beneficial to deer during spring, summer, and fall. The winter range portion of the DRIP manual gave guidance on how to harvest and regenerate conifer swamps to provide rejuvenated food and cover conditions for deer. Although the principles of deer habitat management have remained much the same, the DRIP manual is now nearly 40 years old and will be updated.

Wildlife Division staff continue to work with State foresters to ensure that young forest conditions prevail in appropriate locations and amounts, and they implement special projects to enhance deer habitat, such as planting of clover in forest openings, and planting of oak seedlings to provide future acorns. The DRIP funds, in concert with Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars (revenues generated by sale and leases of oil, gas and minerals from state lands), have been increasingly used to purchase lands that are viewed as important to wintering deer, particularly in the UP, where the loss of quality winter habitat appears to be greatest over the past half century.

Soil types and land cover types are not equally distributed between public and private lands in Michigan. This inequitable distribution often results in higher quality deer habitat occurring on private land. Agricultural lands are almost entirely (99 percent) found on private land and the abundant nutritional forage provided by crops allows for tremendous deer productivity. According to the Michigan Gap Analysis Project (Donovan et al. 2004), over 70 percent of the oak forests in Michigan are found on private land with the hard mast produced by these forests allowing deer to take on critical fat deposits as they enter the lean winter months. About 65 percent of Michigan's aspen forest is found on private land and deer benefit from browse available in regenerating forests, particularly those with aspen. In parts of northern Michigan, deer display seasonal migratory behavior where they seek out traditional deer yards consisting of large lowland conifer blocks that provide thermal cover and shelter from deep snow accumulation. More than 57 percent of the lowland conifer and 60 percent of the identified deer yards are found on private land.

Private Land

Private landowners and the properties they own range from rural homeowners that live on parcels of less than an acre to huge corporations whose ownership may be in the hundreds of thousands of acres. Land management objectives vary significantly as well as interests range from nicely landscaped backyards to private hunting spots to maximized production of agricultural and forestry products. Commercial forest management, agricultural activities, and human development have the largest impact on deer habitat on private land; smaller scale efforts, including non-commercial forest manipulations and food and cover plots established by deer hunters, can have local impacts.

With nearly 80 percent of the land base and the majority of the most productive forests and agricultural lands under control of private landowners, there is potential for habitat management activities on these lands to influence deer numbers. This influence will increase in significance if landowners work together to identify regional habitat limitations and to address these limitations with appropriate projects. The potential for this type of cooperation is high in the northern portions of the state where corporations often enroll large tracts of land in the Commercial Forest Act (CFA), which provides a property tax reduction to private landowners as an incentive to retain and manage forestland for long-term timber production. The CFA also stipulates that public hunting be allowed on all parcels enrolled in the program. In 2009, there were approximately 2.2 million acres enrolled in this program by nearly 1,700 different landowners (Michigan Department of Natural Resources 2010). In addition, in parts of northern Michigan, large hunt clubs often consisting of tens of thousands of contiguous acres aggressively manage for deer and control enough land to impact local habitat conditions. Cooperative land management appears to be a growing trend throughout Michigan as deer management co-ops are becoming increasingly common, even in southern Michigan. These co-ops involve groups of landowners working together on habitat projects and wildlife management activities.

Please check out the Landowner Guide to the left. Please note that while the information within this guide is very helpful, it is the responsibility of the landowner to abide by regulation changes over the years.

Liturature Cited:

Donovan, M. L., G.M. Nesslage, J. J. Skillen, and B. A. Maurer. 2004. The Michigan Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Wildlife Division, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, Michigan, USA.