Get Better Deer Hunting With These Habitat Improvement Tips

Having your own land, making improvements, and finding bucks on it you'd like to hunt all can be greatly rewarding.

Having your own land, making improvements, and finding bucks on it you’d like to hunt all can be greatly rewarding.

They say the best opportunities come when you’re not looking for them, and this one certainly did. It was Memorial Day weekend 2012, and my wife and I were visiting my in-laws’ cabin. We were playing cards and swapping fish stories one evening when the neighbor, a realtor, changed our lives with one sentence.

By Ryan Gilliagan

“You guys hunt along 221st Avenue — east side of the road, right?” she asked across a devastating 500 rummy hand, referring to a 240-acre chunk of central Minnesota woods shared by my wife’s dad and three brothers. “An 80 went up for sale just down the road from you guys, and the price isn’t bad.”

I smiled for a split-second as she sketched a map on the back of an envelope, then grimaced and looked at my feet. I knew the property.

Planting food plots, fruit trees or creating openings for native vegetation to regenerate can help all wildlife.

Planting food plots, fruit trees or creating openings for native vegetation to regenerate can help all wildlife.

Hundreds of acres of lightly hunted state land lapped at two sides, and its boundaries held a patchwork of prairie, hazelnut thickets, swamps and mixed forest. An immense local deer herd had been keeping my in-laws in venison for decades.

For all its qualities, there was one inescapable problem. My wife and I were anything but wealthy, and our 4-month- old daughter was sleeping in the next room. So we said thanks, but no thanks, and let the summer slip away.

But when we saw the same neighbor over another cabin visit on Labor Day weekend, somehow, something clicked.

“That land is still for sale,” she said. “They’ve lowered the price, too.” This time, she sent us home with an envelope holding aerial photos and a detailed written description of the property. After a brief negotiation about a month later, we were signing the closing documents.

It was surreal. I owned my own land.

But then what? And as it turned out, the property was a blank canvas. I’d soon learn the previous owners — a brother and sister who lived more than five hours away — had inherited the property from their late father and had not even visited it for decades. That meant no trails, no food plots and no timber harvests or other forest management.

And as you might expect, neighbors and locals who noticed the generation- long vacuum had been encroaching on the property for years. Even when they had acknowledged the property lines, they built permanent stands right along them.

In short, there was a lot to do, and after purchasing the land itself, there wasn’t much money left to do it.

But a chance conversation with the local forester revealed an almost unknown federal program that helps private land- owners plan, fund and execute a wide array of projects hunters pursue. In our particular case, this meant planting roughly 2,600 deer-friendly, strategically placed trees and shrubs — at a fraction of the usual out-of-pocket costs. But land- owners nationwide can make use of the same program and the variety of conservation projects it covers to turn their properties into more productive hunting parcels. And unlike typical landowner projects such as food plots, the benefits can last decades, if not lifetimes.

For me, the process began the winter after I bought the property, when harvesters started running on a timber sale on the adjacent state land. Some of the cutover areas went right up to the property line, so I got in contact with the local forester to discuss the details.

As we walked the property together on a minus-14 degree February morning, we started talking about my goals, which included planting trees in some large open areas that straddle the borders with my neighbors. The forester made some general suggestions on the species that would grow best in the sandy soil, and offered to put together a planting plan.

“You’ll want to check with the NRCS office about this,” she said. “You might be able to get financial assistance on the price of the trees and planting labor.”

She was referring to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency rooted in the bleak days of the dust bowl era. Calling the waste of resources on farm, grazing and forest lands “a menace to the national welfare,” Congress directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the USDA in 1935. In 1994, Congress changed the name to NRCS.

The financial assistance the forester recommended is part of a nationwide plan called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). It provides funding to private landowners to carry out projects designed to address specific natural resource concerns and improve wild- life habitat. In short, it means a portion of the costs involved with the project is picked up by the NRCS, leaving the landowner a smaller — and in some cases drastically reduced — bill.

If you’re wondering why the federal government would use public funds to finance projects on private lands, realize that conservation issues don’t know property lines.

“If certain issues aren’t addressed where they appear on private land, they can lead to problems for the public as a whole,” said NRCS EQIP Program Specialist Brenda Tonn, citing air, soil and water quality problems. “It makes sense to help private landowners become better managers and stewards of the land.”

The fact that many of these same projects can also result in more and healthier deer, and better hunting opportunities for individual landowners, is an unintended, but perfectly acceptable bonus.

Prescribed burning can revitalize the soil nutrients, clear out underbrush and help with planting of food plots or let natural forage thrive.

Prescribed burning can revitalize the soil nutrients, clear out underbrush and help with planting of food plots or let natural forage thrive.

EQIP How-To
EQIP is a national program, so it is generally consistent whether you own property in Minnesota or Mississippi. The only difference is that every state has different sorts of habitat and conservation concerns, which means the program might cover different projects depending on where you are that fit the area. For example, projects designed to improve rangeland and prairie habitat might be the NRCS’s focus in South Dakota, while those activities won’t even be on the radar of managers in South Carolina.

“If you’re not in a state with forestry, then forestry practices won’t be offered to you,” Tonn said.

The amount of money the NRCS contributes also varies, because contribution amounts are based on the average costs of the practices in the region. And payment rates can also change year to year.

To pursue EQIP financial assistance, a landowner needs only get in touch with their local NRCS office, as I did (visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/ for a field office locator). A representative will walk the property, discuss the landowner’s goals and put together a detailed conservation plan.

Planting fruit trees or opening the canopy for existing mast-bearing trees is a great way to help deer and wildlife.

Planting fruit trees or opening the canopy for existing mast-bearing trees is a great way to help deer and wildlife.

This will outline exactly what practices will be done, and where. The NRCS staffer will estimate what each part of the plan will cost based on the going rates for materials and labor in your specific area, and ultimately provide a grand total. This is done free of cost.

The landowner then submits the plan, along with their application, to their local NRCS office. Applications may be submitted at any time, but the NRCS establishes application deadlines for evaluation and ranking of eligible applications.

After the application has been submitted, the ball is in the NRCS’s court. Applications for financial assistance are prioritized, with the projects that offer the highest environmental benefit getting funding first. You are not guaranteed financial assistance.

“We get X amount of dollars in a given year, so we’re forced to rank projects, give them a score and grant fund- ing to the highest-scoring ones first,” Tonn said.

The good news is that even if your project doesn’t receive financial assistance, the NRCS still provides free technical assistance — valuable insight that will make whatever project you decide to implement as effective as possible.

If your application is approved, your local NRCS representative will let you know, as well as indicate the amount of funding the agency will put toward your project. Afterward, the NRCS issues a check for the total of all associated costs it is contributing.

At that point, the landowner is in the driver’s seat. They need to initiate the purchase of any mate- rials and the contracting of any labor.

The landowner may also opt to do the work themselves. Incidentally, this does not change the amount of financial assistance received. The landowner picks up the tab for whatever costs aren’t covered by EQIP funding.

“Because payment rates are calculated based on an average, some landowners might be left with little to nothing to pay, while others will be left paying more,” Tonn said. “But you should expect to have some costs.”

Strategic Tree Planting
Tree planting projects such as the one implemented on my property are probably the most directly beneficial EQIP conservation practice of interest to hunters. However, whether planted with EQIP funding or not, new trees do not instantly equal great deer habitat or hunting.

In fact, many properties would benefit from a timber harvest. But there is a time to plant, as well, and ways to make that planting not only benefit deer, but also play into your hand for actually hunting them.

The earliest aerial photo of my property I’ve been able to find was taken in 1939, and you could literally count every tree and clump of brush on the 80-acre parcel. The rest was either cropland, swamp or prairie.

In the 75 years since, agriculture was largely abandoned in the area, and forests gradually crept back across the landscape, including my property. Still, large areas of the parcel remain open and treeless. The sparse bluestem grass growing in these areas provide little for deer in the way of food or cover, and it leaves large expanses of my property visible from neighbors’ rifle stands.

Whether you're deeply involved with habitat enhancement or just enjoy hunting native forage, owning your property gives you multiple options and a great sense of satisfaction.

Whether you’re deeply involved with habitat enhancement or just enjoy hunting native forage, owning your property gives you multiple options and a great sense of satisfaction.

Perhaps more important, the expansive openings aren’t inviting to deer during daylight, essentially forcing them to skirt the openings (and my property line) to stay in cover until darkness, especially during periods of high hunting pressure when I’m most likely to be hunting.

So, a huge part of my EQIP plan was the establishment of three jack pine plantations spanning large meadows. The fast-growing stands are intended to ultimately serve two purposes: prevent line-hunting neighbors from seeing and shooting into my property, and create new cover-filled corridors for deer to travel between bedding and feeding areas, and make them more likely to stay on my property during daylight.

Not all properties will share these goals, or necessarily even involve tree planting, but my real-world scenario holds a lesson any landowner can apply to their ground: Look at your land, analyze how deer already use it, identify ways you wished they used it, and then work with your NRCS representative to prescribe projects that will accomplish that while still providing the environmental benefits needed for the project to receive funding.

Not Just Trees
Tree planting is just the tip of the iceberg. Almost anything a hunting property might need — everything from controlling invasive species such as buckthorn to fixing an eroded trail used to get machinery onto a remote food plot might fall under the EQIP umbrella and receive funding, depend- ing on the region, annual budgets and how many other projects are competing for the cash during the same evaluation period.

Planting trees is a great way to enhance habitat and you may be able to receive federal financial assistance, along with free technical advice. One part of the author's planting requirements through federal aid was to "bud cap" the seedings to help keep deer from eating them until they reached a certain height.

Planting trees is a great way to enhance habitat and you may be able to receive federal financial assistance, along with free technical advice. One part of the author’s planting requirements through federal aid was to “bud cap” the seedings to help keep deer from eating them until they reached a certain height.

“Beyond tree planting, we offer engineering practices like grade stabilization and terracing, management practices like pest and brush control, and forestry practices like thinning and pruning — a really wide range of projects,” Tonn said. “It just depends on what the landowner wants to accomplish.”

In fact, while conducting research for this article, I discovered that protecting and enhancing pollinator habitat is a priority of the NRCS in my area. As a result, projects involving clearing low-value grasses and replanting them with high-value pollinator food and cover plants are likely to score high and receive funding.

What do bees have to do with improving your deer hunting? Besides the fact more pollinators could mean more productivity out of your property’s mast-producing trees, it turns out that bee habitat plants include some of the most preferred food sources for deer. In fact, under NRCS guidelines, half of the plants cultivated for pollinator projects must be legumes — think clover. So, a pollinator habitat project could pull double-duty as a high-quality perennial food plot — one you create and maintain at a fraction of the usual out-of-pocket costs.

There are some caveats. Use of NRCS funds is a contractual commitment on the part of the landowner. The contract you sign to secure EQIP funding might last as long as 10 years, and you may not stray from the approved plan — or decide you want to cut a bunch of your newly planted trees to clear land for a cabin or create a shooting lane throughout that period.

Protecting the NRCS Investment
You might also be mandated to take significant steps to protect the NRCS’s investment. For example, on my prop- erty, I was required to bud-cap all jack pines and Norway pines I planted. Bud- capping is a procedure that involves stapling a 5-inch piece of paper around the seedling’s terminal bud to discourage deer browsing. Under the terms of my NRCS agreement, bud caps must be installed annually for three to four years, until the trees are too tall for deer to browse.

The cost of this work was factored into the financial assistance I received, but it was still up to me to make it happen. If you fail to follow the full terms of the contract, the NRCS might request that you return your funding.

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that any financial assistance you receive is considered taxable income.

Final Thoughts
The NRCS and its EQIP incentives are not a cure-all for land management, and landowners will miss out if they don’t utilize food plots, timber harvests and other land management activities to make their properties more productive. But the advantages of this program are clear. By making use of it, any landowner can meet at least some of their management goals and reap the benefits for many years to come.

— Ryan Gilligan is a deer hunter and landowner from Minnesota.

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