This article is not going to talk about the politics of doe hunting, the length of the deer hunting season, or the antler size restrictions. This article is about deer habitat, why it’s disappearing, and how to get it back.
In order to understand habitat, we need to have a general knowledge of succession, which is the natural progression from one vegetation type to another. Left to its own accord, a grass field will eventually grow into a brushy shrub stage, which will slowly be phased out as trees begin to grow above the shrubs, thereby over time shading out the shrubs to become a forest stand of sapling and pole size trees, and eventually to mature forest.
Many wildlife species are adapted to a specific successional stage. This is the key to wildlife management. We can manipulate succession to a particular stage to provide food and cover, commonly known as habitat, for certain populations of wildlife species. Rabbits, for example like grassland next to or interspersed with brush. Squirrels can be found in more mature forest where the trees are large and mature enough to produce fruits, nuts, and hollow trees for shelter. The red tailed hawk needs mature forest for nesting, and grassland for hunting.
Understanding this, we can now encourage deer populations by providing their desired habitat. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “Forests of different ages support different numbers of deer. In studies in Pennsylvania’s northern hardwood and mixed oak forests, seedling/sapling stands supported the greatest number of deer, pole timber stands supported few or no deer, and saw timber stands supported some number in between.”
Notice that seedling/sapling stands, or that brushy stage of young forest, supported the greatest number of deer. Deer are adapted to a broad range of habitats, but do best in early successional stages. You’re not going to find a lot of deer deep in the “big” woods. This is a particular problem, as the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Inventory and Analysis data indicated that Pennsylvania lost 700,000 acres of young forest habitat from 1989 to 2006. Of the forest landscape in Pennsylvania, young forests comprise only 11%. While some was lost to urban sprawl, the vast majority of it simply grew into more mature forest.
Young forests also support a large variety of other wildlife species, such as American woodcock, ruffed grouse, golden winged warbler, Eastern whip-poor-will, gray catbird, brown thrasher, chestnut-sided warbler, prairie warbler, common yellowthroat, Eastern towhee, and field sparrow. Many of these young forest-dependent species al are experiencing population declines and are of high concern. In fact, approximately 17 species of birds that depend on young forests are experiencing serious population declines. Many mammals besides deer also use these same young forest habitats, including black bear, Appalachian cottontail, snowshoe hare, bobcat, and fisher.
About 70% of Pennsylvania’s woods is privately owned. Consequently, private landowners can have a huge impact on creating and maintaining this decreasing habitat. There are cost-share programs available to landowners through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, who wish to actively manage their land and create some young forest.
Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry foresters are available for assistance to private landowners free of charge. Interested landowners can call 814-472-1862814-472-1862.
Contributed by Christopher Jones, Service Forester with the PA DCNR Bureau of Forestry