There is a saying – “Be careful of what you wish for.”
My goal for some time now has been to develop some extensive and very diverse wildlife habitat on my 107 acre family farm. Thanks to CRP and CREP, I’ve been able to do just that in recent years.
Prior to all this, I just owned 10 acres near the back of the farm, and today it is nearly all woods, including trees that I started planting 32 years ago, and kept planting. Come to think of it, I can’t remember a year since that first beginning, when I haven’t planted trees. Some years weren’t so good due to droughty summers. I can remember hand-spudding in 1,000 pines and losing all but two. You don’t cry over the losses, you just keep plugging away until it works. Eventually you begin seeing it all come together.
During this I always created brush piles for cottontail rabbits and have had a sustainable population, even when rabbit numbers seemed to be low elsewhere. When I planted windbreaks, filter strips, and prairie grasslands, my small “seed crop” of cottontails seemed to blossom and then explode, almost as if overnight. Rabbits can certainly multiply when the habitat allows.
I learned a long time ago that the adaptable whitetails can and do truly appreciate prairie grasses, so I wasn’t all that surprised when I realized deer were wintering on my farm for the very first time ever, to my knowledge, just two years ago. This fact pleased me to no end, and was one of my goals. Deer even ventured into my yard, much to the excitement of my wife and me.
I have quite a few white cedars in my backyard. I also have, or should I say had, plenty on the western border of my farm. By spring I realized white cedar, especially young trees, no longer had a future on my farm. Most of my cedars under 6 feet in height were destroyed, and those that were taller were browsed up to the 6 feet mark, giving them either a palm tree or poodle-cut appearance.
This all occurred despite plenty of food sources such as neighboring corn stubble fields. The deer were eating there of course, but they also love to browse and white cedar is a favorite. Actually, I would discover 2 of the 4 rows of my CREP windbreak around the perimeter of my farm would also provide plenty of deer browse, and the cottontails weren’t lacking for a food source as well.
My outer row was a hardwood mixture of predominately sugar maples, and the inner row was a very diverse mixture of berry-producing shrubs including wild plums, crabapples, serviceberries, dogwoods, and high bush cranberries. The two inside rows are white spruce. As of this spring, the hardwoods and shrubs had been completely browsed away. What the whitetails didn’t get, the cottontails finished off, and only the white spruce remained unscathed (with the exception of more than 150 white spruces destroyed during the recent winter by trespassing snowmobiles – but that is another story).
Last spring I completed the fruit orchard located right next to my house. I made sure to put sections of black tile around the trunks to act as a rabbit guard. During the last week of March, deer destroyed all the young fruit trees (6-8 feet in height) in just one night. They browsed the trees right down to the top of the rabbit guards.
The whitetails have actually eased right into first place as the major destroyers of my trees and shrubs.
Besides replacing the fruit trees, I just finished hand-spudding in 1,500 white spruce trees. This turned out to be quite a process this year. Due to a farm accident last spring and major leg surgery, followed by almost a year of recuperating, I was plenty soft. By the second day of tree-spudding, crawling out of bed in the morning proved to be a bit of an ordeal. Even the hair on my head seemed to hurt. With bag balm on my blistered palms and horse liniment on sore parts, which was pretty much everywhere, I continued on.
I wouldn’t recommend it, but tree-spudding is actually pretty good physical therapy, at least in my case. By the time I had nearly finished, I was actually feeling pretty good. The flock of turkey vultures that soon arrived at the start of things and had continually soared over me seemed to eventually lose interest. I do believe in the beginning that I looked quite promising to them. I discovered my occasional staggering about and falling prostrate for periods of time could create a delectable image to a buzzard.
One enlightening fact that I discovered while tree planting was the extra road-killed deer not seen by the casual observer. A main road borders my north side, and a side road borders the east. Several road-killed deer are very visually lying near the shoulder of both roads associated to my property. While planting trees, I discovered several more vehicle-hit deer that had run onto my property before succumbing to their injuries. I was pleased when I finally finished planting near the roadsides, because the continual stench of decaying animal matter was nearly overwhelming at times. This was probably a key reason why I had so many vultures hanging close by.
According to the CREP guidelines, my inner shrub row must remain a shrub row when I replace it next year. I completed the outer row that had formally been hardwoods with white spruce, which deer tend to ignore. Thanks to the advice of a forester friend, I just ordered common juniper shrubs to complete my shrub row next spring. Being very similar to red cedar (which is actually a juniper tree, and not cedar), common juniper is not a preferred deer browse. However, when times are hard for large numbers of deer during winter, nothing is deer-proof. Fortunately here in the agriculturally rich Thumb, deer have plenty of food sources before having to resort to eating non-preferred browse.
Finding a deer that has actually starved to death in the Thumb area is an extreme rarity. Finding very many browse trees such as white cedar that are naturally rejuvenating today, is also an extreme rarity. This is an obvious key sign of too many deer in relation to a sustainable habitat. For some folks too many deer is a good thing, but such is truthfully not a healthy situation for not only the deer, but also the available habitat.
My original goal of creating a very diverse habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including songbirds, has been primarily squashed by the whitetail deer. I’m now down to only two evergreen species only that I can plant and have any hope of not being browsed away. Not much diversity as I had hoped, but a path I must follow if I ever hope to succeed fully with my habitat endeavors.
I truthfully have no complaints. The wildlife is readily responding to my efforts and I’m enjoying every bit of it. I’ve created the challenges that I now face. To succeed I know that I must roll with the punches, learn while I readily adapt, and persevere. In other words, I just keep plugging away in a constructive manner until I succeed. I see it in no other way. But then my wife has always said I’m a very stubborn sort.
Clearly, more antlerless deer need to be harvested annually to aid in keeping deer numbers properly in check with their environment. Attitudes of many deer hunters today have still been slow to change. The whitetail doe to them is the untouchable “Sacred Cow” of the forest.
To me, this same doe represents some mighty fine venison, not to mention an extreme challenge to hunt.
To help instill an interest in a proper doe harvest, the DNR is planning on submitting a couple potential options to the NRC for consideration for this fall: A 5-day antlerless deer only season (firearm) in October for all the TB affected counties, as well Iosco and Shiawassee Counties. And a 5-day antlerless season (firearm) in September for all of Zone 3, as well as the TB area, including Iosco County.
Personally number two gets my vote. I truly love deer hunting and it is not my desire to ever see our local deer herd whittled down to nothing, but I do want to see our deer herd becoming more compatible with the available habitat. This can only occur through a proper antlerless harvest.
Humans as hunters are after all the most effective predatory control tool for making this come about.n