Gimme shelter

Deer wintering habitat key to healthy herd

Deer wintering habitat is a concern among many conservation officials as well as the public. Conservation practices for deer during this season was the subject of a Monday meeting hosted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources at the Skandia Community Center. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

SKANDIA — Private landowners can play an important role in improving Upper Peninsula deer wintering habitat, and how they can help was the focus of a public discussion Monday at the Skandia Community Center.

Current and former employees of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Marquette County Conservation District led the meeting to discuss issues facing whitetail deer during the cold-weather months.

The winters of 2013 and 2014 were particularly brutal, but a problem has existed since 2000.

“The buck harvest in the Upper Peninsula is down nearly 80 percent,” said Jim Hammill, a former DNR employee and now a wildlife consultant.

The numbers of deer hunters are down about 64 percent.

“It’s a different ball game altogether, isn’t it?” Hammill said. “We’ve lost a lot of these deer. Deer hunting has taken a big hit, and frankly, I think it has affected all of us. It’s affected real estate values. It’s affected all the economies that surround deer and deer hunting up here.

“But more important, frankly, to me is it’s affected our culture. I’d like to see deer in huntable numbers when my grandchild is old enough to hunt deer.”

He acknowledged a “big predator load” on deer in the U.P.

However, that’s not the only factor, nor is it the main factor.

“More important than anything is winter conditions and the lack of quality shelter for these deer,” said Hammill, who noted U.P. shelter has been declining over the years.

Two years ago, the Natural Resources Commission put together the Upper Peninsula Habitat Workgroup, of which he is a member, to look at improving habitat in the region to increase deer numbers.

Deer winter range areas have been determined, he said, with preliminary plans drawn up for deer yards.

“Now we need to move to implementation of improving habitat in those yards,” Hammill said.

What’s been particularly noticed in the western U.P., he noted, is the decline of thermal cover.

With good cover, does survive better and better birthweight fawns are born, with those fawns better able to sustain themselves, he said.

“When deer don’t have that good shelter to survive in the wintertime, they perish,” Hammill said. “They just perish, and we can lose up to all of our fawns in any given year. That happened a couple of years ago.”

DNR wildlife biologist Robert Doepker said that with the priority placed on winter habitat, goals have been set, which include: increasing mobility for deer moving from winter logging trails, providing access to treetops and regenerating tree stems in subsequent years.

“We need, simply, shelter and food,” said Doepker, with the ideal ratio being 50/50.

The best shelter would be a mix of cedar and hemlock, with food for browse being maple and aspen ideally located next to shelter, he said.

Deer wintering complexes have wide-ranging effects.

For example, Doepker mentioned the Harlow Lake-Big Bay Deer Wintering Complex, which encompasses about 19,000 acres but influences 190,000 acres.

That DWC has cedar and hemlock for its primary shelter species, with secondary species being white pine, white spruce and balsam fir, all of which account for 25 percent for shelter, he said. Food species make up 62 percent.

Since the goal is a 50/50 mix, opportunities favoring shelter species over food species are being sought, Doepker said.

Ernie Houghton, DNR service forester for the eastern U.P., addressed forest planning for landowners and how they could get started, noting non-industrial private landowners own 60 percent of the state’s forests.

“Timber harvests, forest managing — these are efficient and effective ways of creating wildlife habitat and maintaining wildlife habitat,” Houghton said.

Planning is key, he stressed, and that involves taking a landowner’s ideas and comparing them with what’s growing on the property and the inherent capability of that property to meet the landowner’s needs.

A course of action then must be developed to make those needs a reality.

One method is the Forest Stewardship Program, a partnership between the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service. The program connects landowners with professional foresters to develop a Forest Stewardship Plan for the land.

Plan writers, according to Houghton, already have money from the state to write plans, with nearly everyone eligible to participate. There are, however, elements that reflect regional concerns that must be incorporated in plans.

Another plan, CAP 106, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, includes forest management.

“There’s no best first step for everybody, but whatever’s right for your family, I hope you know what to do,” Houghton said.

Matt Watkeys, Marquette County Conservation District forester, talked about the Forestry Assistance Program. A qualified forester may write a management plan covering properties the landowner wants enrolled in the Qualified Forest Tax Program.

The program includes free site visits from foresters.

“We can talk about your ideas, or maybe what you’ve done or what you may you want to do, and I can provide a lot of great advice and recommendations,” Watkeys said.

Bill Scullon, DNR field operations manager for the western U.P., said food plots should include a clover mix, and suggested invasive plants like hogweed should be avoided.

“You look closely at those ingredients lists,” Scullon said.

He also recommended a soil test to get the right lime-fertilizer ratio to put on the ground to be successful.

What’s not recommended is supplemental feeding, he said, although if people want to engage in that practice, it should be continued throughout a heavy winter.

Hammill said: “As private landowners, you have a huge impact on what may or may not happen with this deer herd in the future. It’s privately held lands that are going to be the key to the future of winter deer range in the Upper Peninsula.”

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Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is