Understanding wildlife density to set the table

When you throw a party, it can be difficult to plan for food if you don’t have a good estimate of how many guests will attend. The same situation could arise with your wildlife property. If you don’t know how many wildlife guests are using your property, then you could fall short in the nutrition department. Estimating the amount of wildlife on your property, year-round and seasonally, can help with habitat management decisions.

ESTIMATE THE CROWD

Donnie Buckland, NWTF grasslands and agricultural manager, understands the importance of estimating the number and density of wildlife visitors. Buckland has decades of experience in wildlife biology and habitat management, but even with his background, he realizes counting secretive wildlife species is challenging at best.

“In many cases, it is difficult to estimate populations because of the relatively small size of the property and/or the larger home ranges of some species,” he explained. “It may also be the case that wildlife only uses the property at certain times of the year or under certain climatic conditions. Exact counts are difficult because of the mobility of larger wildlife species.”

Given the challenges of estimating specific numbers, Buckland advises landowners to monitor trends to see if populations are increasing, decreasing or stable. He also encourages wildlife property managers to monitor habitat, noting, “It’s helpful to record any changes in the landscape, such as farming changes, timber harvests, any unusual weather, harvest data, etc.”

PLANNING THE MENU

Like a party, you need to plan a menu for wildlife. You may not be able to estimate the population of all species, especially smaller species, but you need to have a good feel for the densities of larger species like deer and turkeys. One tool you can use as a starting point is deer-per-square-mile estimates that many state wildlife agencies compile. Find them online or by reaching out to staff biologists.

“These deer-per-square-mile estimates are usually based on previous harvest data and fairly large areas, such as counties or management regions,” Buckland explained. “While these estimates give an average, they may not necessarily be accurate for smaller properties. The estimates are based on averages over a wide area with a diversity and quality of habitat. With a square mile consisting of 640 acres, a landowner with smaller acreage may have a difficult time using these numbers.”

Buckland suggests compiling your own counts from field observations and documenting them annually in a journal or calendar. By recording counts on bucks, does and fawns through the seasons, landowners can begin to see reproduction success and seasonal shifts in population. The same can be done with wild turkeys.

Trail cameras can be instrumental in this documentation process. By keeping cameras in the same location every year and creating a filing system, you can also see if trends are occurring. Compare those images with your habitat and firsthand wildlife observations to stay abreast of changes on your property.

PARTY PLANNING HELP

By understanding wildlife trends, you can plan possible habitat improvements. One of the easiest habitat elements to add is seasonal nutrition via food plots.

Professional wildlife property consultants, your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services office and state wildlife agencies can provide in-depth knowledge on wildlife needs. These experts can suggest helpful information on what crops offer the best nutrition at various times of the year. Plus, they can give insight on what nutrition already resides on your property in the form of mast crops, browse and native grazing vegetation.

“Almost any property can probably be enhanced by providing a diversity of habitat types,” Buckland said.

— Mark Kayser

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