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Cruising For Native Food Sources

By John J. Woods

Ever wonder what white-tailed deer ate before man came up with the idea of food plots? That statement is not meant to be a smart aleck comment. It's meant to initiate a dialogue with wildlife habitat managers, landowners, and deer hunters in an effort to have them recognize the full potential of the natural browse that already exists on the properties they hunt.

Truth is, as wildlife land mangers we may have gone a tad bit overboard on food plots. When you get around a group of deer hunters, the talk sooner or later is going to turn to "what are you planting this year?" Advertisements for super seed mixes and other strategies for growing huge antlers constantly bombard us. We feel pressured into creating succulent food plots to attract deer and provide supplemental nutrition for wildlife. However, all this effort and expense may not be necessary in every case.

Of course there is nothing wrong with adding supplemental food plots as part of a wildlife habitat management plan. In fact in areas around the country where high quality natural browse is not always available on a year around basis, then one key management strategy is to provide extra nutrition for wildlife by planting food plots. However, wildlife land managers should first take into full account the amount and quality of native food sources that are available.

A LAND MANAGEMENT CASE STUDY

My own hunting land partnership consists of 600 acres alongside the buck-rich Big Black River habitat in central Mississippi. We cultivate almost 40 acres of fall food plots on an annual basis. Recent research indicates a guideline of a mere one percent of a total property planted in high quality food plots year around will have a positive impact on the deer population's general condition. For those land managers wanting to push the envelope a bit, they might go up to 3-5 percent.

Our total food plot acreage versus total land acreage is more like 7 percent. Perhaps we rationalize the higher percentage of food plots because all of the owners are thus far reluctant to shell out the extra dollars to plant both fall and spring food plots. So while we think we are doing the right thing, we may have already gone too far.

Since our club is a participant in the state DMAP deer assistance program, we have the option of an annual visit by a state wildlife biologist. These visits are designed to make recommendations to help landowners better manage their wildlife. For most clubs including ours, that means deer. We arranged for this visit last summer.

We drove the biologist across the property stopping frequently to walk food plots and trails so he could assess the overall habitat. When he heard how many acres of food plots we were planting his response was "why in the world are you planting so many acres?" We were taken aback, because we assumed we were on the right track.

"I've never seen so much natural browse in all my life. You guys are flooded by the river two, three or more times a year, bringing in extra soil nutrients and maintaining a high soil moisture. This is producing tons of quality browse for the deer. I doubt you would actually have to plant one food plot," the biologist commented. "What you guys really need to do is harvest more does and let the small bucks walk." He definitely had us on that one.

CONDUCT A PROPERTY VEGETATION SURVEY

Then the biologist pointed out the plants that are native varieties that white-tailed deer use as excellent food resources. Among the plants he quickly identified were honeysuckle, blackberry, wild grape, persimmon, oak acorn mast and several native grasses.

What we learned from this exercise I suspect is what other habitat managers take for granted as well. While we busy ourselves with implementing a supplemental food plot plan, we overlook the natural food sources that already exist on the land. Most of us don't do a very good job of taking care of what we already have.

If you are not adept at assessing the native browse on your hunting lands, then plenty of help is available. Every state wildlife department should have technical experts that can walk property with landowners to evaluate the quality of the habitat. County agricultural agents may have handy plant guides to follow. A local NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) specialist should have specific plant and soil information for your regional area. Tap into these resources then get out to do a plant map of your hunting land.

THE BIG BUCK PAYOFF

I can't imagine a land owning deer hunter alive that would not smile at the idea of saving money and hunting trophy quality bucks at the same time. Conducting a plant assessment of the native wildlife foods for a specific habitat will provide deer hunters with two critical pieces of information. It will provide a detailed list of the quantity and quality of natural browse that exists, plus it will tell the landowner exactly where it is.

The survey may show the habitat has sufficient native food sources to sustain the deer herd. Cost savings could be realized by cutting back on supplemental food plots. Also making this assessment will provide the deer hunter with critical location data for preferred whitetail foods. Wouldn't you rather position a hunting stand overlooking a honeysuckle thicket?

Determining what native food sources are available for wildlife on the land you hunt is one of the cornerstones of any viable wildlife management plan. Taking action to enhance and expand these resources can be just as valuable a management tool has cultivating supplemental food plots. So before you stick that plow disk in the ground this year, conduct a vegetation survey to assess the native resources already on the property.

-- John J. Woods

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