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The Big Picture - A Landowner's Guide to Sound Land Management

By: Donnie & Amanda Wood

QDMA’s last member survey revealed that over half of QDMA members own some hunting property. This is the first of a 4-part series that will discuss land management from start to finish — how property owners can improve deer quality while managing forests for an eventual return on their investment through timber harvest.

For the outdoorsman, it is the ultimate American dream — owning land. What else could be better than walking off your back porch only to step onto your hunting tract? If you own land or are considering making a land purchase for hunting purposes, then read on.As a landowner, you will realize that deer management will become much more enjoyable and complicated. As a leaseholder, your deer management program most likely consisted of population management and food plot management. As a landowner, your ability to manage the habitat increases exponentially. You’ll find that you have many more options in the deer management toolbox available to you. Let’s see what you need to begin your land management program.

Someone once said that in order to succeed you first must have a plan. That’s partially true. As a landowner, first you must have goals. Then you can develop a plan on how to get there. In order to get from here to there, you have to know where here is. You must evaluate the present condition of your land. Goal setting, evaluating, and planning should be the first things you do. In this article, we’ll talk about all three. To make things easy, let’s assume that deer management is the primary interest of the landowner.

Before we begin discussing the elements of developing an effective plan, let’s talk about getting some help. If you’ll thumb through this magazine, you’ll notice plenty of advertisements for food-plot seed, planting equipment, etc. You’ll also see a few advertisements for consulting wildlife biologists and foresters. At this stage of the game, that’s what you are looking for — someone extremely knowledgeable about deer management and habitat evaluation.

You might elect to have a state or federal agency wildlife biologist visit your property. Or you might hire a private consulting wildlife biologist. Regardless, we would advise you to seek the help of a resource management professional in the development of your management plan. Goal setting is very important. Without direction (goals), it is very easy for your management activities to follow the latest trend or craze. By setting goals and aligning your management activities to reach those goals, you’ll be much more likely to succeed.

It is important to set attainable goals for the property. For example, if your 100-acre property is surrounded by the “put-’em-on-the-ground quick” hunting club, a goal of consistently harvesting 4 1/2-year-old bucks is not going to be very attainable. Similarly, if your property is in the sandhills and surrounded by scrub oak, don’t set the same goals that your buddy uses on his hunting property two hours away in farm country. Landowners are advised to involve resource professionals including foresters and wildlife biologists in the development of property management plans.

These professionals will help you in goal setting by letting you know what is biologically feasible for your property.

While we are on the subject, another important component of goal setting is to identify any constraints, or limitations. For many landowners, the biggest constraint is money. For others, the primary constraint might be time. Regardless, it is important to identify your constraints and to develop appropriate goals. Otherwise, you might end up with a lot of big ideas but no time or money to make them a reality.

A final thought about goal setting — be specific. Generally, the more detailed you can be in setting your goals, the more successful you will be in reaching them. A few examples of poorly-worded goals would be to “harvest primarily adult bucks and fewer button bucks,” or to “improve deer quality,” or to “improve forage availability.”

More specific goals might be to “harvest only bucks that are a minimum of 3 1/2 years old and reduce the incidence of button buck harvest to a level not greater than 10 percent of total antlerless harvest,” or to “increase average dressed body weight by 10 pounds for each age class” or to “increase herbaceous forage availability by 30 percent through timber management practices.”

Once you have set your goals, the next step is to evaluate the existing conditions on your property. This is one area where a biologist can be of greatest assistance. In a relatively small amount of time, a qualified biologist can look at every timber stand and habitat type on your property and provide you with some valuable feedback including:

  • An assessment of each stand/habitat’s current value for the wildlife species of interest.
  • A prediction of each stand/habitat’s potential value under different management regimes. 
  • A list of recommended management activities.

Once you are through with the evaluation of existing conditions, the last step in the puzzle is to develop your management plan. This plan will be a roadmap that will take you from your current conditions to your goal conditions. Again, a resource professional can be of valuable assistance during the planning phase of land management. Specifically, they can provide you with a range of management options (including costs and benefits) to help you reach your goals. Since a complete management plan for the forest landowner will include aspects of habitat management and herd management, it is time (and often money) well-spent.

Once you have determined your goals, made an evaluation of the current conditions, and developed your management plan, you are ready to begin the implementation of your plan. Implementing a management plan may sound like work. However, when your work tools include tractors, ATVs, (fire) drip torches, and even your trusty old rifle, I think you’ll find it easy to put in a full day on the job.

  • Donnie Wood has an M.S. in Wildlife Management from The University of Georgia and works with MeadWestvaco Corporation as a wildlife biologist. Donnie helped form the Chattahoochee Valley Branch of the QDMA.
  • Amanda Wood acquired a B.S. in Wildlife Management from The University of Georgia and is working to complete an M.S. in Wildlife Management at Auburn University. Amanda owns Woodland Resource Consultants, providing wildlife and timber consulting services to landowners.