Forestry, Wildlife and Natural Resource Management > FWNRM Blog > Posts > Drought Impacts on White-Tailed Deer Management

When Food Plots Fail

fawn.jpgCurrent drought conditions in Alabama left many hunters unable to plant fall food plots. Those that did plant likely have very poor food plots due to the lack of rain. While food plots provide great hunting areas, and food in times of nutritional stress, they are only one very small piece of the puzzle when it comes managing for deer and other wildlife. Those that have been managing for natural food sources likely have healthier deer herds, and increased deer sightings.

Of course, one of the most important sources of food for deer in the fall is acorns. Acorn production can actually be increased by "releasing" oak trees by removing nearby trees. This practice will allow the canopy of the released tree to expand, leaving a bigger canopy and more space for acorns to grow.

Thinning forests to release oak trees has additional benefits to wildlife such as deer. When trees are removed from a forest, sunlight is allowed to reach forest floor and soft plants will grow. Plants such as strawberry bush, grape, and greenbriar are nutritious, and highly preferred by deer. Not only will deer browse on these all year, they also create cover for fawning.

Natural deer foods can also be created by managing fallow fields and pine plantations. Remember, food plots are just a tiny piece of the puzzle when managing for deer and other wildlife. Successful land managers and deer hunters provide a variety of foods.


Drought Conditions and Acorn Production

Many species of wildlife, both game and non-game, feast on the acorns crops that Alabama's native oak trees provide each fall. Hunters are well aware of this, and find success deer and squirrel hunting near mast producing oak trees as the acorns fall. This year, many hunters and land managers are questioning whether the drought will negatively affect the acorn crop this fall.

When considering the production of acorns in oak trees, the most important thing to remember is that acorn production is variable. For example, white oaks, on average, will only produce a quality crop of acorns every 2 out of 5 years. There is also variability within individual trees: some trees are simply better acorn producers than others.

White Tail Buck

This variability can be caused by a number of factors, but research has shown that drought conditions during the summer can have a negative impact on acorn production in several different oak species. Other factors that may influence acorn production are poor pollination, late spring frosts, and acorn weevil depredation.

So, what can land managers do to improve the production of oak trees? Many have tried to fertilize oak trees to increase acorn production, but there is no research that has proven this to work. Thus, it is not recommended and is considered a waste of funds.

What land managers can do to increase acorn production is to manage the trees for large canopies. Acorns grow on the tips of branches, so trees with large canopies usually produce greater acorn crops. To increase the canopy of trees, neighboring trees must be removed to leave room for the remaining trees: this is called releasing the tree. The released trees will receive more sunlight and other nutrients, and will be able to expand. This is demonstrated in urban areas, where tree spacing is large and trees are allowed to grow. Of course, trees that have demonstrated superior acorn production should be the ones chosen for release.


Drought Conditions Leave Deer Susceptible to EHD

dead buck carcas in woodsEpizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) and the closely related blue-tongue disease can kill both deer and cattle. Both diseases are spread to deer, cattle, and other ruminants (but not humans) through tiny biting midges. These midges breed in shallow margins of ponds. Ideal conditions are warm water with low oxygen and high nutrients. Cattle ponds are often perfect areas for the insects to breed.

The current drought creates perfect conditions for the midge. Ponds and other water holes are drying up, and the remaining water will be warm, muddy, and high in nutrient contents. While deer usually receive a large portion of their water from succulent plants, drought conditions cause forage quality and moisture content to drop, forcing deer to head to ponds to drink. This increases the contact that deer will have with the biting midges.

Dead deer found in and around water would be the most obvious sign of EDH. Since the disease causes a fever, deer will seek water to cool off, where they often expire. Earlier signs of EHD include weakness, swollen head, neck, tongue, and eyelids. They may also lose their fear of man, and may show ulcers on their tongue and irregular hoof growth. Deer will usually pass within 10 days of infection.

Land managers can provide clean sources of water for wildlife using plastic swimming pools or cattle troughs. Of course, The water in these will need to be cleaned out frequently to prevent further spread of disease. If you suspect you may have confirmed a case of EHD, please contact your local extension agenet.


By: Spenser Bradley, ACES Forestry, Wildlife & Natural Resource Managament Regional Agent



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