It’s long been preached that there are no silver bullets when it comes to improving wildlife habitat. There are no shortcuts, no end-around, no one-size-fits-all fixes.
But what if I told you there was an exception?
There is one silver bullet for wildlife habitat management. One concept that is applicable everywhere from Maine to Montana to Mississippi. There’s one approach that will help deer and turkeys, birds and bees, bugs and frogs and turtles, and well, you name it. The secret is found within one simple word and all that it brings with it. Diversity.
To understand the value of diversity in habitats, it helps first to consider what happens in the absence of it. The opposite of a diverse landscape is a monoculture. A field of corn. A pine plantation. A yard full of fescue. Monocultures represent a uniform landscape devoid of vegetative diversity. And what do all of these monotonous landscapes have in common? A lack of wildlife on any consistent basis.
It’s worth noting that monocultures, or close approximations of them, are a man-made phenomenon. Mother Earth almost always favors diversity. With this universal law of the natural world in mind, if you want a great hunting property that’s home to thriving wildlife populations the obvious course of action is to exchange monotony on the landscape for diversity. In other words, create some disruption, change things up, inject chaos, and add new ingredients to the mix.
“To optimize wildlife diversity,” Mike Porter and Will Moseley of the Nobel Research Institute wrote, “a manager should develop and maintain as many different plant communities as the soils, water, climate, and terrain allow.”
Studies have shown that, as a general rule, increases in vegetative and habitat diversity lead to increased habitat value for wildlife. This positive relationship between habitat diversity and wildlife use can be seen across a host of different species.
Whitetail deer, for example, are a foraging species that crave and seek out diversity in their diet. According to one report from Mississippi State University, deer have been recorded eating up to 400 different species of plants in the Southeast alone. “Diet selection changes in response to seasonal changes in forage abundance, quality, and metabolic needs of the animal. Deer eat a variety of food types, including browse (leafy parts of woody plants), forbes (herbaceous broad-leaved plants, including agricultural crops), hard and soft mast (seeds), grass, and mushrooms/lichens,” the report states. The more habitat types and high-quality forage options you can offer whitetails, the more likely they’ll be to spend time in your area.
Not only is diversity in food important for deer but also in cover and structure for bedding and travel. Whitetails are edge creatures, being attracted to any area where two or more habitat types come together. Per the University of Missouri Extension office, “strategies that create a mixture of plant successional communities also improve white-tailed deer habitat. Diversity is the key.” The more diversity in vegetation, the more edge there will be and the more options for relative quality in bedding and travel. All of this makes for better and more predictable hunting opportunities as well, and not just for deer.
“Good, diverse forest cover is extremely important for ruffed grouse habitat,” notes Jon Steigerwaldt, forest conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society. “Birds will utilize different age classes of timber at different times of the year. For example, ‘brushier’ habitat found in younger forests act as a roof to shield ruffed grouse from avian and other predators.”
This attraction to diversity holds true not just for upland birds but turkeys as well. One report from the Michigan DNR states that, “the ideal habitat mix is 20% to 30% bottomland hardwoods, 10% to 30% mature oaks, 5% to 10% conifers, 10% to 15% shrubs, 20% to 30% croplands, and 15% to 25% grasslands, clover pastures or idled fields.” In other words, the ideal habitat mix for turkeys is diverse. This rule holds true for just about any other wild game animal, small mammal, bug, or bird you can think of.
With this in mind, how can you add wildlife-focused diversity to your property?
Monoculture or even-aged timber stands quickly lose their wildlife value as sunlight to the understory is shut out by mature tree canopies and deer-level plants, grasses, and shrubs die off. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get sunlight and diversity back into your forests. Small scattered clear cuts, select-cut thinning, and hinge-cuts can all create new diverse pockets of sunlight-craving vegetation while also creating new edges and structures inside a forest.
We recently addressed this very issue in an eight-acre plot of mature pine and hemlock trees at my family deer camp. For decades, no sunlight has reached the ground, leading to a lack of any forest floor understory and, in turn, a lack of deer and other critters. With this problem in mind, we recently brought in a logger to cut three small, eighth-acre pocket openings, leaving the treetops on the ground for cover, and another eighth-acre, micro-food plot. What was once eight acres of wildlife desert is now a diverse forest filled with structure, scattered sunlight-filled openings, and a small but attractive food source.
Old fields can come in the form of livestock pasture, neglected crop fields, or weedy areas too wet for traditional farming practices. If left alone, these open areas can sometimes be taken over by invasive plants like marestail or fescue and quickly become a near monoculture of low wildlife value. But, if managed properly, old fields can be a wildlife paradise.
Strategies for diverse, high-quality wildlife habitat in this kind of area can include:
Adding food plots to a property lacking quality food adds diversity and a new edge right out the gate, but one can do even better by ensuring the forage planted in those plots is diverse as well. By planting a blend of plant types rather than a single monoculture, your plots are more likely to withstand difficult growing conditions and are more likely to attract deer over the entirety of the year.
Not only that, but by planting diverse blends you’ll often find that certain plant species will benefit neighboring species by adding nitrogen to the soil, creating new organic material, or suppressing weeds. Planting diverse food plots can also reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. In short, blended plots are more attractive, more resilient, and more affordable.
Few things are simple in the world of land management, but this is. Make your property as varied, multi-faceted, and diverse as possible and you’ll enjoy healthier wildlife populations and better hunting. So what are you waiting for?
Feature image via Matt Hansen.