We might be living in the golden age of whitetails across America. But the same can’t be said for many of the other animals, fish, birds, and bugs that share the landscape with our favorite big game animal.
Scientists are now warning of a slow-rolling mass extinction event taking place across the world that’s threatening hundreds of thousands of different species, even here in America. This “biodiversity crisis,” as it’s commonly referred to, comes at the hands of a host of threats ranging from outright habitat destruction to invasive species, climate change, and pollution. For many Americans, this might seem like just one more piece of bad news that you can’t do much about. But that is uniquely not true for whitetail hunters that own or lease land.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are approximately 440 million acres of private land across the country that is leased or owned for “wildlife-dependent recreation,” much of which comes in the form of hunting. A 2009 report from the National Deer Association showed that just within its membership, there were about 13 million acres of land owned for hunting. This is all to say that whitetail hunters have influence over a huge swath of ground. Rather than waiting around for a government agency or some new legislation to come along and save the day, we whitetail managers have an opportunity to help save threatened species ourselves. Right now.
We often hear the phrase, “hunting is conservation.” But if the only conservation work we engage in is only directed towards the animals we want around to hunt, the claim rings a bit hollow.
I’d argue that we hunters, who benefit so much from wild animals and places, might owe a debt of gratitude to the entire natural world. We take so much; shouldn't we also give back? By making an effort to protect threatened species, beyond just those we hunt, we might begin to pay down the debt we’ve accrued.
From a more practical standpoint, if we want the non-hunting public to continue to support our pastime and legal hunting privileges, a demonstrable conservation impact on non-game species would certainly be a valuable feather in the cap too.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that every bird, bug, plant, and mammal on the landscape is connected. It was once said that if you tug at any one thread in nature, you’ll find that it’s connected to the rest of the world. Each and every creature has a part to play, and if one exits the scene, there will be inevitable ripple effects. What happens to songbirds or turkeys or bees might very well have significant implications on deer and deer hunting down the road. Let’s get ahead of that.
Pollinating insect populations, crucial contributors to native ecosystems and human agricultural systems, are declining at worrying rates across the planet. American beekeepers, for just one example, have lost nearly a third of their colonies every year since 2006. Pesticide use and habitat loss seem to be primary drivers. Fortunately, deer managers can help on both fronts.
First, when prepping food plots and conducting other habitat work, it’s wise to minimize herbicide use as much as possible. If you are spraying, be careful to follow the label and avoid windy days. Spray drift has inadvertently led to the destruction of critical pollinator plant species across much of farm country. Hunters can make an impact simply by not adding to this problem.
Secondly, pollinator plantings of diverse wildflower blends can immediately benefit bugs of all kinds, not to mention providing habitat for deer and all sorts of small mammals and birds. Planting strips of wildflower blends on the edges of food plots, in old fields, or alongside roadways can make an immediate local difference. Click here for a beginner’s guide to planting wildflower mixes from the University of New Hampshire.
Since 1970, the North American bird population is down by nearly 3 billion. Nearly a third of all the birds on the continent have vanished in less than fifty years. The losses have been particularly severe for grassland bird species, which have declined by more than 50% during that timespan.
As with most species declines, the reasons are complicated, but habitat is central to the story, especially when it comes to those species that depend on grassland ecosystems. More than 60% of the approximately 550 million acres of historical native grasslands in North America have been converted to agriculture, with 53 million acres lost just between 2009 and 2016. That said, the easiest and most effective way for landowners to help is to put grassland habitat back on the ground. Fortunately, whitetails love this kind of landscape as well.
To help provide great bedding cover for deer and the necessary habitat for dozens of different songbirds, prioritize some portion of your open spaces for diverse blends of native warm-season grasses. If these native grass species are already present on your property, the best thing you can do is help them along by periodically burning them or using other means to remove non-native invasives and set back woody early successional growth. If you don’t yet have native grasses, you can find native seed blends for your region from a number of different online retailers as well as the Pheasants Forever habitat store.
Of the pollinator species present across America, there might be none more charismatic and iconic than monarch butterflies, and they too are rapidly disappearing. Populations have dropped more than 90% in just the last two decades. Uniquely though, compared to many other pollinators, monarchs are specialists, eating and laying their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants. That said, addressing the decline of monarchs involves a specific and straightforward approach beyond the needs of other pollinators. Plant milkweed!
You can do this by simply adding an increased concentration of milkweed seed to any previously planned pollinator plantings or strips on your property. Despite monarchs only needing milkweed, a recent study found that monarch egg production increased when milkweed was part of a diverse blend of other pollinator plantings versus being planted in a monoculture. Finally, it should be pointed out that many hunters find milkweed to be the most effective wind-checking tool available when deer hunting. By adding this crucial butterfly food to your property, you’ll increase your chances of feeding not just butterflies, but also your own family.
Ruffed grouse populations have fallen by at least 50% across the eastern United States over the last twenty years, and a widespread change in habitat is playing a major role, specifically the maturing of forests across the nation that was once more commonly disturbed or logged during previous generations. Ruffed grouse thrive in brushy areas and young forests—ecosystems that are increasingly rare today.
Deer managers can actively address this issue by expanding ruffed grouse habitat in the same ways they’ve traditionally gone about improving timber bedding cover for whitetails. Clear-cuts or aggressive select cuts, for example, can open up the canopy and get sunlight to the forest floor, allowing for the creation of the high stem count environments that grouse crave. Numerous state agencies provide region-specific advice for improving ruffed grouse habitats such as Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
While the challenges facing wild turkeys are not at the same scale as those mentioned above, wildlife managers are concerned about a quickening decline across turkey country withan estimated 15% dip. in populations since 2005. It would behoove us all to address this trend before turkeys officially move into an officially threatened status.
A widespread loss of quality nesting and brooding habitat seems to be one of the main problems plaguing turkey populations. Fortunately for whitetail hunters, good turkey habitat is also good deer habitat, and much of the work you can do to improve nesting and brooding will benefit all the other species we’ve mentioned too.
For good nesting habitat, turkeys need cover at or below three feet high. This can come in the form of warm-season grasses, brushy old fields, thickets inside timber, and the like. The more separate patches of quality nesting habitat the better, as this will prevent predators from focusing on any one particular swath of cover.
Similarly, when eggs hatch and young poults are on the move, they again need quality early successional low-level cover, not to mention insect-rich feeding grounds. Per a report from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “the ground cover should be dense enough to encourage insects, but not so dense as to inhibit the poults' movement. Brood habitat must be near or adjacent to brushy and wooded areas for escape cover and trees for roosting.” This kind of habitat could be created through many of the already mentioned projects, such as old field management, prescribed fire, and timber cuttings.
Images via Captured Creative.