The ideas of habitat management for improved white-tailed deer populations and better hunting have become very common and are now as ingrained into our hunting culture as deer camps, blaze orange and camo.
Food plots and trail cameras are things that many hunters use as tools to balance a healthy deer herd and bring about better hunting opportunities across North America. While food plots work well for open tracts of land, there are sound forestry principles that you can apply to your wooded areas that can have a dramatic impact on your deer population today and in the future.
A properly managed forest can provide much more to your whitetail and other game animal population than you may be aware of. Aside from basic cover, a forest tract can provide a strong forage base outside of food plots and agricultural crops. This is vital for the lean times during winter and early spring months. A properly managed forest also provides security and escape routes for deer, as well as winter yarding areas. You can also control deer movements year-round by selective harvest and proper pruning.
Knowing Your Trees
We all know that trees take a while to grow. Hardwoods take much longer to reach maturity than do evergreens, so management of hardwood trees is not something to take lightly. It is something you should consider though. Knowing your tree species is something that you can easily do by examining the leaves. Certain species of trees have a higher value to you as a hunter and a land owner. Maple trees and oak trees have significant economic value as lumber trees and as firewood, for those that burn wood. Oak trees are important to hunters for acorn production. If you have mature oaks on your property, leave them.
Other hardwood tree species such as ash, beech, birch and basswood, are faster growing, making them good candidates for management. They are also more disease prone. Northern Midwest states like Michigan are currently having the ash tree populations decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer, a non-native insect that burrows into the bark and kills the tree within a season or two.
Evergreen trees grow rapidly and offer dense cover. Planting new trees in an open area can provide good deer cover and travel routes within a short amount of time. Mature evergreen trees have an economical value to be harvested and open up the undergrowth to sunlight when removed. Certain evergreens also work well as browse for deer, especially during times when traditional food sources are scarce.
When you walk into a mature stand of trees, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that the upper canopy blocks light from reaching the undergrowth. In areas where light penetrates, you will find significant growth of plants, and younger trees. You can manage the undergrowth by selective harvest of mature trees. You can hire this done, if you want to, but remember that you lose some of the control over the land when you bring in workers that don’t know the land as you do.
The first step in a selective harvest has much in common with how you control your deer population. If you’ve ever heard the term “cull buck” in reference to removing a deer from your gene pool, it is similar to removing a tree from your forest. Take out the ones that won’t do anything for you. The diseased ones go first, and you should immediately remove the wood from the forest as soon as you can. A small tractor, or your ATV can make quick work of pulling a tree out of the woods and out of your way.
After the diseased and dead wood is removed, check your light penetration to your forest floor. Ideally what you want is for light to penetrate for more than just the few moments the sun is directly over the opening in the upper canopy. If you’re only cutting out one tree, that won’t do it. You need to get more light onto the floor to get that browse to grow and flourish.
If all of the trees you have left are mature hardwoods, and you still need to remove some, the choices get a little harder. You have to decide what you’re going to do with the downed trees. Remember that trees are a vital natural resource, so take out any trees that hold less value. In a stand of mature maples, take out a few of the stunted trees, or ones that are crooked and would yield less valuable lumber. Keep in mind that older maple trees are more prone to have what is known as curly maple, which has significant economic value. It is hard to tell if a tree has this type of wood while the tree is standing, but if your sugar maples have bark that is significantly bumpier than other trees of similar age, that is a good indication. One good curly maple tree can bring you a lot of money, so contact a forestry expert for an opinion.
Your Friend the Sun
Opening up the forest canopy and getting more sunlight to the forest floor and the undergrowth can be as valuable or more that planting a food plot. A vigorous undergrowth provides much that is vital to a deer’s development and life cycle. Thicker undergrowth provides screening for deer, which they look for and need to evade predators and other threats. If you want a shot at a relaxed, mature deer, they need to be within a short distance to good screen cover.
A vigorous undergrowth also provides thermal shielding, which is vital year-round to whitetails. In colder months, a thicker forest cuts down on wind and helps retain heat, helping your deer herd from using vital calories to stay warm. In the summer months, when antler development is at its peak, thermal shielding helps keep the deer from overheating, by providing shade and a secure place to comfortably rest out of the sun.
A thicker undergrowth also provides a secondary food source of rich browse. Letting the light penetrate to the forest floor will cause an explosion of new plant and tree growth. It also opens the door to letting some food-plot seeds take root, if you expose clear soil and some throw-and-grow type plot seeds to the sun. All of which can create a deer hunting “hot spot” for you this fall.
Making the Cut
You can’t just walk up and cut down a tree. You need to study it some before you make the cut so you know where it wants to fall. If the tree is leaning, or looks like it might want to topple in a certain direction, chances are it will. But it might not, and that’s when things can go bad for you.
The tools you need to have are a chainsaw with enough power to cut through the tree. An underpowered saw can take much longer to make the cut. Any time you take to cut the tree further exposes you to danger. We use a Husqvarna 450E saw for the majority of our forestry work. It is an easy-start model with more than enough power to cut through any tree we have quickly. Plus, it is extremely dependable. The 450 we use has an 18-inch bar on it. This is good for medium-diameter trees. The maximum bar length for this particular saw is 20-inches. You want to have enough power to pull the chain and enough length in the bar to not bury the tip of the saw in the tree for safety.
You also need a good strap to help pull the tree in the intended direction. A good axe helps, especially if you get the saw bar pinched in the tree when cutting. Also make sure you have proper safety gear. A helmet and eye protection is a must, as are thick gloves and saw chaps to prevent injury. Also make sure you have someone with you with a cell-phone in case of an accident.
You have some control over the direction of the fall. Start by strapping the tree. Put a rope or strap on the tree as high as you can reach and have someone go out in the direction you want the tree to fall. We use a UTV with a winch and a tow strap so we can be far out of the reach of the tree when it falls. Putting pressure on the tree will generally help make it fall in the direction you want. Remember – safety first!
You first cut should be to notch the tree, again in the direction you want it to fall. Be careful as you don’t want the notch to be too deep. A deep notch can make the tree unstable. The second cut, or the felling cut comes from the opposite side of the tree. Keep a close eye on the tree as it starts to go and be ready to move quickly if it goes against the plan. Trees that are dead, or may have disease can have rotten spots that can cause the tree to break, or even explode as they fall. This makes things unpredictable so again – be safe!
Once the tree is down, cut it into smaller sections that are easier to move if you’re planning to clear it out. Remember to be safe here too, and be mindful of your saw. Steel-toe safety boots are also important and keep the saw from getting into the dirt. Dirt dulls the chain and rocks can cause accidents.
Editor’s Note: Husqvarna has an extensive archive of helpful tips for working with chainsaws. Even if you’ve been working with gas-powered saws or years, browsing this content could teach you something you didn’t know.
You’ll see results quicker than you might imagine from selective harvest of trees in your forest. The undergrowth responds quickly to increased light penetration, and new tree growth, while it takes many years, is good for the overall health of the forest and your deer herd. It is an investment in your hunting future and for the generations that follow.