Wildlife management, particularly white-tailed deer management, is becoming more and more commercialized. Hunting magazines and TV shows bombard landowners and hunters with commercials from seed companies, feed dealers and feeder manufacturers. They are catchy ads, too, with pictures of huge, sometimes out-of-proportion antlers and promising trade names such as “Rack-Up,” “Antler King,” “Rack Attrack,” “BigAz’ Feeder,” “Rackmaster,” “Pro-Vide,” “Bio-Logic,” “Big Buck Crunch,” and the list goes on. Food plot implement dealers and deer stand manufacturers are also flooding magazines and TV shows with their ads. These ads seem to be right on target for fueling the current frenzy of growing and hunting trophy bucks. But, little attention is given to the basics of deer habitat management because it can’t be put in a bag or can and sold for a profit.
As in most situations, there are two sides to the story. On one hand, one can argue that this commercialism is creating a heightened awareness of deer habitat management needs and that there is a subliminal message to the non-hunting public that hunting is big business. Proponents of the issue may say that education and hunting opportunities for youth are also big benefits. On the other hand, one can argue that commercialization of this manner threatens the very livelihood of hunting by over emphasizing the “trophy” and “convenience” aspects of hunting. After all, today’s hunter only has to go to a heated, fully enclosed, recliner-equipped blind set up by the feeder or food plot and wait for a hungry deer to appear. Opponents of the issue may say that youth are only learning that it is the size of the antlers that matters and that the only requirement for killing a big buck is to sit in a comfortable blind next to a food plot or feeder and shoot him when he appears.
Unfortunately, this commercialism has led many deer managers and hunters into a trap. The trap is believing that food plots and feeders equal habitat management which equals big bucks. This has led many landowners and hunters to manage “intensively” for deer, i.e., food plot and feeder establishment, rather than “extensively,” i.e., manipulation of native plants through burning, cutting, grazing, etc. Managers who want to influence body weights and antler growth in a free-ranging herd by developing a deer supplementation program beyond what the native habitat can provide under proper management need to realize that it is an expensive and inefficient process. Therefore, intensive supplementation programs for free-ranging herds are not recommended for most deer managers.
This is not to say that food plots, feeders and minerals are not useful. In many situations, they have their place, especially for attracting deer for photography or hunting purposes. However, if nutrient supplementation is the goal, managers should not expect too much from them. Nutritional issues are better addressed through proper management of native habitat and deer population parameters such as deer density. In addition, most biologists agree that in order to potentially impact deer nutrition, food plots should comprise 3 to 5 percent of the property being managed and consist of cool- and warm-season plants. When using supplemental feed to improve the nutritional plane or increase carrying capacity, feeders should be located about every 100 to 320 acres and contain feed every day of the year. Management of this intensity requires a lot of time, labor, money and weather conditions conducive to growing food plots.
Another potential trap that this commercialism may create is a perception by the non-hunting public that hunting is only about trophies. Surveys of the non-hunting public show they are more likely to support hunting as a recreational pastime, but less likely to support hunting for “trophies.” Youth are the future of all of our endeavors, including hunting. Youth should be taught about how to properly manage native habitats for wildlife and how to balance these needs with population management goals. They should also be taught that food plots, feeders and minerals are artificial supplementation and should only be considered for increasing the nutritional plane or carrying capacity after it has been determined that native habitat is not meeting nutritional needs for management goals.
This month is the time when many managers and hunters begin to establish cool-season food plots and fill feeders for the coming fall and winter. Before you do, be sure that the food plots or feeders meet your hunting or habitat management goals and objectives. Also, when you take that youngster with you, be sure to teach them about managing native habitats and why or why not you chose to plant a food plot. We owe it to them. They are the future managers of our wildlife populations.
This article was contributed by Russell Stevens of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.