Looking At Timber Harvest With Hunter’s Set of Eyes

Timber harvest doesn’t necessarily mean the deer are leaving your property. It just means they’ll be using it differently. Here are some tips to unlock that mystery.

Kris Pope | November 1, 2011

A small island top and a windrow below left standing after a logging operation provide excellent cover directly after a timber harvest. Along with giving deer cover, it gives them a commanding view of the area.

Chances are at some time during your hunting career you’ve interacted with a timber harvest. Logging typically upsets hunters. We don’t like change; we knew where the deer trails were, how the deer moved, where they bedded. Now that the timber is harvested, you are looking at a completely different terrain. Gone are your favorite stand trees. Maybe your best oak grove was cut? Whatever the case may be, hunters don’t like seeing log trucks coming in and out of their hunting land.

What hunters fail to realize is it is usually those trees that provide their hunting land. Many hunters nowadays rely on leasing land for their hunting opportunities. A great deal of land is leased by timber companies. Those trees pay for the land; usually leases just pay the taxes. The same is true for private landowners, who may have purchased the land as an investment, looking to get a return from the trees on down the road. You may be a landowner considering a timber harvest but unsure of how it may affect your hunting. This article is meant to try and change the perception that logging is bad for hunting and to get hunters to see it more as an opportunity than an obstacle.

As a forester, I spend much of my time in the woods working with loggers, and I can tell you firsthand that logging doesn’t bother the deer nearly as much as people think it does. I believe deer become accustomed to it like they do a farmer. They realize all that noise and machinery doesn’t pose a threat to them, so they go on about their business. I’ve seen deer in the same clearcut a logger is working in, and if you’ll stop and talk with the logger they can usually tell you about the deer they’ve been seeing. I am told regularly where a buck is bedding or crossing a road. If it is close to or during hunting season, it could pay big to stop and talk with loggers for a few minutes. They are in the woods nearly every day from daylight to dark and they see a lot.    

The after effects of logging are what bother most people. A clearcut is not exactly the prettiest thing to look at, but that is from our point of view.  Deer do not possess the capacity to look at a landscape and decide whether it is pretty or not. They simply use it because that is where they live. The effects are similar to a fire, hurricane or tornado.  Disturbance is nothing new to wildlife. They’ve had thousands of years to adapt to it. Typically disturbance is beneficial, providing new food sources and cover. That is why prescribed fire is often included in management plans.      

Any time you have soil disturbance, it promotes new growth of grasses, forbs and tender young shoots, which are very attractive food sources for deer. The exposed soil and ample sunlight encourages pioneer species. Depending on the timing of logging activities you could have partridge pea, ragweed, dog fennel, blackberry and fireweed, in addition to grasses and whatever hardwoods that may resprout. All of these species provide great cover, and some are highly preferred browse species. Generally, winter soil disturbance promotes higher quality wildlife forage than summer disturbance.     

You can count on there being leftover logging debris, broken limbs, treetops, etc. scattered around a logging site. There may be pockets of small or less-valuable trees scattered around as well. Deer won’t hesitate to use these areas to bed in. With such a broken landscape, they are easily camouflaged, yet have a commanding view of the surrounding area to see any approaching danger.

Depending on property ownership, after a timber harvest is a good time to expand or create new food plots or orchards. This is an ideal opportunity to set up your land strategically.  Determining sizes, shapes and locations of food plots is a lot easier when there are no trees to clear. You’d better have a game plan ready beforehand though, because once regeneration starts, it will be thick and harder to deal with. Obviously, leasing land from a timber company may make this more difficult, but it is possible to have an area set aside. Having a good relationship with the person in charge of leasing can go a long way. Most of the people in the timber industry are hunters, too, and know the value of planting for deer.

One major thing logging does is create lots of obvious edge, and isn’t that what many of us look for when scouting? It can create some killer funnels. If both sides of a hardwood drain are cut, where do you think the deer will travel? They may not be comfortable strolling across a wide-open clearcut — especially once hunting season has been in for a while — so their only safe option is to travel the drain. It’s the same principle that hunters around crop lands use.

This not only applies to fresh clearcuts but also after the harvested stand begins to grow back.  Whether it is planted or left to naturally regenerate, for the first five to 10 years, the stand is going to be very thick. This will restrict travel, too. There will be trails through the stand, and those will be hot spots to hunt. The deer will either travel those established trails or run the drain. Deer are like people; they are lazy and will take the path of least resistance.

Then there is always the obvious, to hunt the clearcut itself. You will be able to watch a large area. Depending on how pressured the area is, the deer may feel comfortable coming into the clearcut to feed during daylight. Or they may hang close to the edge, waiting for the cover of darkness to enter the cut. Either way, you better have your A game because you may have a long shot.  And of course all bets are off when the rut rolls around. Bucks may be running right through the middle of the cut, caution thrown to the wind.

Clearcuts are not the only logging operation you may encounter. Thinning or selective harvest is a widespread forestry technique designed to let certain trees grow better, attain higher value and possibly provide seed for the next timber stand.  These operations do not have as obvious of an impact from a visual standpoint and can be very beneficial from a wildlife perspective.

Thinning is meant to reduce competition among trees and is usually done when there is full canopy closure.  Creating breaks in the canopy allows more sunlight to reach the ground, which promotes new understory growth. Now you have a new food source because you have soil disturbance and increased sunlight on the forest floor.    

This is an aerial view of a tract after the pines had been harvested. With so much of the landscape cut to the dirt, it’s plain to see that the hardwood drain is an obvious funnel for traveling deer.

I hope this will help you see a brighter side should you encounter logging on your hunting property. Don’t get mad at the logger; he’s just trying to make a living. Chances are he’s a hunter, too. Talk with him, and see where he has been seeing deer. Look for those funnels, lay out your food plots and look hard at any islands or small pockets of brush. You may be calling the logger after hunting season to thank him.

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