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Where Deer Hide -And Why

Learn to identify prime deer habitat, and you'll never be far from prime deer.

Deer season's over, and you struck out. Perhaps the ridge you've hunted for 20 years turned as deerless as your freezer. Or during scouting you found a woodlot trampled like the Chicago stockyards, but in November only one scrawny doe walked past your tree stand. Or the bucks you glimpsed during bow season took a Florida vacation before .270 time.

If you knew more about "deer habitat," that frequently uttered but rarely understood term, you might have filled your tag. What seems to be good deer habitat often isn't. Or it was at one time but it has changed over the years. And you have to learn to adapt to the changes, because good deer habitat is often (in the words of sometime deer hunter Ernest Hemingway) a moveable feast.

Like any animal, deer require food and shelter-fuel for the complex machinery of their bodies, and a place to rest and hide from predators and weather. It's easy to assume that any piece of empty country would provide plenty of food. After all, deer are browsers, or so we've been told. Browsers eat brush and trees, which also provide shelter or, as hunters call it, cover.

But New World deer, of the genus Odocoileus that has evolved for over 3 million years in North America, actually require more than twigs for sustenance. Whether the species is whitetail, mule, or blacktail, deer need relatively high-calorie, easily digestible food. Larger herbivores like the elk and the domestic cow are much better at chomping and digesting wood. In the words of one Western biologist, elk are "garbage mouths," able to digest anything from dry grass to bark. Why? Their digestive systems are larger than a deer's, allowing longer, slower digestion to break down tougher fibers.

In biology-speak, deer need to browse what's known as early successional herbaceous growth, the small woody plants that grow after bare earth is first covered by grasses and forbs. During wet, mild weather deer eat grasses, forbs, or any other easily digestible green growth available, but they need young browse to survive Saskatchewan winters or Arizona summers. Farm crops supplement this natural diet, but farms don't exist everywhere in North America, and crops aren't available year-round. For long-term survival, deer need tender browse, such as honeysuckle and shadbush in the East, snowberry and big sagebrush in the Rockies, manzanita and mountain mahogany in the Southwest, or salas and bearberry along the West Coast. And they need varied browse, because certain plants provide the most nutrition at specific times of year.

Hiding Places
Because they're smaller, deer don't retain heat in subfreezing weather like elk or moose, so they seek wind-free cover long before larger animals do. In cold country, this often means conifers, especially spruce. The low-sweeping branches of spruce trees form little caves around the tree trunk, relatively free of snow and wind. If deer can't find spruce, they often head for lowlands full of willows or alders, or hillsides covered by young aspen or lodgepole pine-anywhere close-spaced boles block the wind. On the plains, they hide in buffaloberry thickets or hardwood draws filled with green ash and wild rose.

Farther south, deer need both cool-weather cover and shade during hot summers. When a wet 30-degree wind sweeps into the Deep South in January, they often hide in pine plantations. But during summer they prefer mature oak ridges, where high leaves block the sun, and the breeze can ease along open ground. Out West, desert deer find shade under junipers and acacias or even rock ledges or steep cutbanks-anywhere they can avoid direct sun.

The Burn Factor
But food is the overriding factor in good deer habitat. So how do we go about creating early successional herbaceous browse? The quick and easy answer: Burn it. As soon as Europeans hit the shores of North America, they noticed native people deliberately buing the countryside. Often these hunters used fire to drive deer; soon more deer would feed on the early successional plants growing on the fresh burn. Historical records note that some tribes regularly burned certain areas every few years, rotating the burns so that they always had fresh browse growing nearby, a sort of natural venison pantry.

Settlers saw any fire outside the hearth as the enemy. Today many professional foresters, wildlife biologists, and even rural fire departments know controlled burning is good for timber, wild animals, and fire control. But people live almost everywhere in America, and those living in or near the woods may intellectually accept burning-as long as it's done somewhere else. So the areas we can regularly burn grow smaller every year.

Controlled, repeated burning was exactly what the Indians east of the Mississippi practiced. Low-fuel brushfires don't burn hot or long enough to destroy the humus in the soil, so when new plants appear they quickly follow the natural succession pattern: grasses, forbs, small herbaceous plants, trees. For healthy deer, the trick lies in maintaining the "small herbaceous" stage. This means burning the same ground every five to 20 years, depending on rainfall. After several years the ground may still be covered by the right plants, but the tender twig tips deer need for survival rise above the average deer's head.

Since we can't burn the woods the Indian way, we open them with other methods, like clear-cutting. Clear-cuts can be evil and greed incarnate-but done right, they also provide pretty good deer food.

The best clear-cuts for wildlife are small and a long way from any stream. Many studies have shown that deer rarely venture more than 100 yards into any opening to feed. So clear-cuts that are much more than 200 yards wide hold far less deer food than some timber companies would have us believe. The finest deer-cuts are created by burning what's left behind by the chain saws. Slash-burning, done right, imitates the slow, relatively cool Indian fires that swept forests clean before Smokey Bear went Hollywood. But clear-cuts mature and, unless they're logged again or burned, will eventually grow too high to feed deer.

Too Tough to Swallow
Biologists call the aging of vegetation decadence, and the same successional process that will overrun my clear-cuts in Montana is at work all over the country. Every few years I visit a West Virginia "farm" that covers more than a square mile of mountainside. Though it holds a lot of deer, it isn't good deer habitat. Most of the land is covered with mature trees, which shade the ground so thoroughly that almost nothing grows there, especially the low browse that feeds deer and other species such as ruffed grouse.

Deer survive haphazardly on the farm, really flourishing only when a good acorn crop falls. When it doesn't, they enter winter almost fat-free because aside from acorns, there's not much else to eat. Fat-free is supposedly good for humans, but for northern deer it's a disaster, especially when snow falls, since there's no browse rising above the snow. The solution? Not clear-cutting, but selective logging-taking out younger trees to open the ground to sunlight, leaving the heavy-crowned oaks to drop their acorns to supplement the new browse.

Out West the same thing is happening with winter range. In the 1930s, much of the West suffered through the Dust Bowl. Combined with overgrazing, this almost killed the sage, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, and other low browse that mule deer eat during winter. The deer almost disappeared until the 1950s, when gentler grazing and wetter weather sprouted all sorts of early successional herbaceous growth. Mule deer reproduced like jackrabbits, and some states allowed hunters several bucks per autumn.

But several decades of fire control later, that tender browse has grown into tough old brush, and mule deer numbers are slowly declining. Predators are often blamed, because until the 1970s, the Department of the Interior and many state governments attempted to kill off every coyote and mountain lion in the West through poisoning, trapping, and bounties. When intense predator control ceased, more coyotes and lions certainly ate more deer. But at the same time, much winter range had grown too tough for deer to eat.

Burning winter range would seem to be a real solution here, making both hunters and ranchers happy. But an increasing problem across the dry West is cheatgrass, a drought-resistant grass introduced from Asia in the 1930s. Cheatgrass only provides decent grazing for a few weeks in the spring. Afterward it dries into a hot-burning and nearly inedible hay (about the only animal that eats mature cheat is the chukar partridge, not coincidentally also introduced from Asia). Cheatgrass grows almost everywhere in the Great Basin these days, and when cheat-infested range burns, it destroys almost every other grass and shrub. Entire valleys of perfect deer food have turned into expanses of ankle-high cheat.

Some game departments and private groups are attempting to find solutions to old sagebrush and new cheatgrass. However, any solution is complicated by the subdivisions sprouting over the foothills of the Rockies. Newly planted homeowners rarely want to see the countryside burned or even scraped free of old sage, and their houses often block migrations of deer from high mountains to winter-range foothills.

The Suburban Blues
The opposite problem occurs in subdivisions in the East. A suburban lawn is essentially an artificial burn, maintained in a perfect state of early succession, providing fine deer food ranging from constantly green grass to rosebushes to hedges. Beyond the lawns lie perfect planted screens of spruce or pine, or brushy creeks too steep even for split-level homes. Because we can't hunt most subdivisions, these well-fed deer increase like, well, cottontail rabbits. This often creates the anomaly of a huge chunk of old-growth forest 200 miles to the north (where many suburbanites travel to hunt) being almost devoid of deer, while dozens of untouchable deer roam the backyards of those same traveling hunters.

The only certainty about deer habitat is that it never remains the same. In order to be successful, hunters must learn to find and adapt to new places-just like the deer do.gh old brush, and mule deer numbers are slowly declining. Predators are often blamed, because until the 1970s, the Department of the Interior and many state governments attempted to kill off every coyote and mountain lion in the West through poisoning, trapping, and bounties. When intense predator control ceased, more coyotes and lions certainly ate more deer. But at the same time, much winter range had grown too tough for deer to eat.

Burning winter range would seem to be a real solution here, making both hunters and ranchers happy. But an increasing problem across the dry West is cheatgrass, a drought-resistant grass introduced from Asia in the 1930s. Cheatgrass only provides decent grazing for a few weeks in the spring. Afterward it dries into a hot-burning and nearly inedible hay (about the only animal that eats mature cheat is the chukar partridge, not coincidentally also introduced from Asia). Cheatgrass grows almost everywhere in the Great Basin these days, and when cheat-infested range burns, it destroys almost every other grass and shrub. Entire valleys of perfect deer food have turned into expanses of ankle-high cheat.

Some game departments and private groups are attempting to find solutions to old sagebrush and new cheatgrass. However, any solution is complicated by the subdivisions sprouting over the foothills of the Rockies. Newly planted homeowners rarely want to see the countryside burned or even scraped free of old sage, and their houses often block migrations of deer from high mountains to winter-range foothills.

The Suburban Blues
The opposite problem occurs in subdivisions in the East. A suburban lawn is essentially an artificial burn, maintained in a perfect state of early succession, providing fine deer food ranging from constantly green grass to rosebushes to hedges. Beyond the lawns lie perfect planted screens of spruce or pine, or brushy creeks too steep even for split-level homes. Because we can't hunt most subdivisions, these well-fed deer increase like, well, cottontail rabbits. This often creates the anomaly of a huge chunk of old-growth forest 200 miles to the north (where many suburbanites travel to hunt) being almost devoid of deer, while dozens of untouchable deer roam the backyards of those same traveling hunters.

The only certainty about deer habitat is that it never remains the same. In order to be successful, hunters must learn to find and adapt to new places-just like the deer do.

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