It's not at all uncommon, especially during a hard winter or following a winter storm, to speak with hunting enthusiasts and landowners who express deep concern about the ability of deer to survive until spring without supplemental feed. Their concerns are legitimate, at least to some degree. Harsh winter weather is hard on wildlife. Heck, it's hard on people!
Although the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has prohibited supplemental feeding of deer (or moose) in New York state since 2003 - in response to the threat of chronic wasting disease, a highly contagious, progressive neurological disease that attacks the central nervous system of infected animals and causes small holes to form in their brains - private forest landowners who want to help deer survive the winter, should consider including deer habitat management as part of their overall forest management plan. By using long-accepted timber management practices, successful deer habitat management is easily achieved on forest land that has the capacity to produce a good, year round supply of the natural foods which are essential to carrying a healthy deer population.
If you are considering employing habitat management practices on your forest land, it is important that you first recognize that deer instinctively decrease their activity in winter, in order to reduce the amount of food that they will require to make it through. They gather in areas that provide adequate cover and protection from deep snow, where at least some natural food is available. And they rely on stored body fat for perhaps as much as a third of their winter energy requirements. They lose weight because of this. It's normal and it's natural.
In years when mast trees such as oaks or beech have produced an abundance of acorns or nuts, deer will seek out those high-energy foods in early fall, often remaining in areas where they can be found and pawing through as much as a foot of snow or more to get to them. As the deep snow and extreme cold set in, however, they are forced to seek cover.
Deer prefer sheltered areas with or close to shrubs and sapling trees that provide high-quality browse. But, when big buds and nourishing twig ends are unavailable, they will resort to eating dry leaves, needles, and bark, often described as starvation foods because they provide very little nutrition.
A preferred overwintering site will consist of a mixture of mature conifers, some southern aspects and scattered deciduous openings. By making certain that deer overwintering on your land have sheltered areas that offer easy access to a sufficient diet of natural, high-quality browse from late fall through early spring, you help ensure their ability to survive even a particularly harsh winter, as well as the overall condition of the herd and the ability of does' to produce healthy fawns .
If you have an ample number of deer overwintering on your land, it is probable that some form of quality browse is fairly readily obtainable. After all, if there was no food to be had, the deer would be somewhere else. One of the keys to successful deer habitat management is to identify the natural browse that is available and then improve the productivity of that browse.
Younger timber stands and forests that offer ample amounts of fresh grasses, tender native plants and accessible green tree and shrub leaves in summer and brush that provides bud and twig browse in winter will be preferred by deer over an older forest that cannot provide adequate natural food year round. If yours is an older forest or timber stand, you may want to consider logging to create forest openings, not unlike those created by natural disturbances, such as fire, wind, ice storms, insect outbreaks and diseases, all of which provide temporary openings that create opportunities for vegetation, including plants, shrubs and trees that can provide food, browse and cover to a variety of wildlife species, to become established in the landscape.
You may also choose to selectively thin your stand or to cut firewood or saw timber in winter. This will leave small trees and tops lying on the ground, providing an immediate source of browse at a time when snow cover renders other food sources unavailable.
In fact, your forest may already contain openings created by ice and wind storms or from old, existing logging trails, landings and / or rights of way. If that is the case, these openings can be maintained, managed or enlarged to create or improve habitat and promote or enhance food production.
Once openings have been established, you may elect to release and/or introduce certain desirable native tree species, or to simply allow the clearings to regenerate by natural succession. Deer, rabbits, grouse and other wildlife that find the areas will continue to use them, until they close over. And, as your cuts fill in, the new, thick growth will provide the additional comfort of concealment from predators. You will need to create new openings at five to eight year intervals however, if you wish to maintain your wildlife populations.
Another option is to kill the stumps of cut trees to prevent them from sprouting and to allow the site to grow in with native grasses, broadleaf annuals and perennials, and wild berries and shrubs. You may even decide to plant fruit bearing trees and shrubs or wildflowers, or to remove the stumps completely and plant grasses and forbs. However, all of these "food plot" options may require additional site preparation and maintenance.
Keep in mind that den trees, mast trees and unique tree species should always be left behind to assure good habitat diversity.
If you are a private forest landowner or manager and would like more information about management of native vegetation and timber, creating and improving habitat, and / or establishing food plots on your land, you should contact your local regional DEC office or Cornell Cooperative Extension office.