Autumn has once again come around and leaves are changing colors. Some people may be thinking about camp fires, warm sweaters and pumpkin spice-flavored everything, but many area residents that enjoy the outdoors have something else on their minds… deer hunting season. 

Deer hunting is a great source of recreation and is also great for forest and wildlife management, according to Michael Paling, the Oceana Conservation District Forester. “White-tailed deer depend on Michigan forests as habitat, which provide food and water sources, as well as thermal cover and bedding areas,” Paling said. Adding that, “this dependency, however, can suppress natural resources if the population goes unchecked.”

In some areas, natural predators such as wolves help keep the deer population in check. However, a lack of these predators can put the responsibility of deer management on the shoulders of hunters. If deer aren’t being hunted each year, the populations can quickly increase, which in turn puts extra stress on both the forest habitat and the deer population itself. “For a deer population to be healthy, it needs adequate browse and cover to survive,” Paling said. “When a population becomes too large, the deer tend to over browse their food source, essentially eating themselves out of house and home.” 

Over browsing can be observed as stunted growth of tree seedlings from nipped buds, loss of lower twigs and leaves on trees, and an open and underdeveloped forest understory. Some vegetative species are also more preferred by deer, but when those species are no longer available, deer will move on to the less preferred species.

A healthy deer herd needs to have a healthy habitat, but once that habitat becomes over browsed, it can’t support the large deer herd. The health of the deer within the herd could start to decline, showing signs of poor body conditions and smaller antlers. Does will also start producing fewer fawns and the whole herd will be more susceptible to diseases.

Forest habitats can also be altered from the impact of white-tails. “There will be a lack of seedlings, shrubs and wildflowers which are a large portion of wildlife forage,” Paling said. Adding that as mature overstory trees die, fall over, or are harvested, there won’t be any new trees to take their place. “Without many trees taking up that open space, invasive species, such as Japanese barberry, multi-flora rose, or European buckthorn could take over the area. Deer tend not to browse species such as these, because they grow thorns and prickles to deter wildlife browsing. This can also push other wildlife species out, because they need to search for new suitable habitats.”

Hunting has been an important aspect of Michigan’s heritage. “So with deer archery season underway and rifle season just around the corner, take a little time to think about the positive impact that hunters are having on the management of our natural resources,” he said.

For hunters in search of more information about the local deer herd and how they can help improve the management of the herd, the Quality Deer Management Association is a great resource to connect with other hunters and natural resource professionals, Paling said. “Lastly, for anyone going out hunting this season, please keep an eye out for deer showing any signs or symptoms of Chronic Wasting Disease. More information on the disease can be found at www.michigan.gov/cwd.”