Making Wildlife Feel at Home on Small Properties

Becoming a real estate mogul requires some serious cash. Thirty years ago or more, rural land sold for its real value in the farming and ranching realm. But recreation and rural acreage sales have skyrocketed, and today land values are whatever the market dictates. Fragmentation, absentee landowners and land grabs often mean your hunting property is shrinking like a cotton shirt in the clothes dryer. If you’re faced with the prospect of owning, leasing or hunting on a small property via permission, be proactive. Your small property could pay off in big hunting dividends with the right management.

How small is too small?

Biologists have long suggested most whitetails live in an approximate 1-square-mile home range. Their core home range, where they spend 50 percent of their time or more, is often smaller — maybe even as few as 100 acres. Other wildlife such as turkeys may also call a section of land home if the right ingredients make up the neighborhood. Unfortunately, regional wildlife behavior, seasonal nutritional changes and hunting pressure all can make wild animals wander or move. If you have access to a small property, your goal is to limit this wandering and give wildlife more reasons to stay than stray. How small is too small? I know one whitetail bowhunter who consistently takes trophy whitetails from a mere 9½ acres, including a 180-point giant last season.

More is better, but you can do a lot with a little. When looking at a property for wildlife management, forget acres for a minute and inventory habitat potential. Is the property secluded enough for wildlife to use it 24/7? Does the property contain refuge? All wildlife requires a sanctuary, whether it is a thicket, a briar patch or some other dense cover. Lastly, does the property host or have potential for nutrition, and hydration?

If the property has these elements or they can easily be added, your hunting value on your small property just went up. 

Make it work for hunting

Although entrance points are important on any hunting property, they are crucial for small properties. As you plan for food plots, ponds and refuge habitat consider how you are going to enter and exit prime hunting locations.

For big game species, consider preferred travel routes and where deer will be spending loafing time. For turkeys, note all favored roosting sites. Research prevailing winds for downwind approaches to potential stand sites and stay near the edges of your property. Also look for natural screens, like brush and reeds, to mask movement. You can’t risk marching through the middle of your small property daily during hunting or the offseason, and bumping game across the fence.

“You have to manage your presence on a small property,” said Ryan Basinger, a 9-year veteran wildlife biologist and consultant for Westervelt Wildlife Services. “Set up your property so you can work your way around it with minimal disturbances. This means strategically choosing when and where you hunt, and hiding access. Pay attention. If you bust a deer out of a thicket, it can run to the neighbor’s property within 200 yards.”

Making it feel like home

Food: Food plots are the No. 1 improvement wildlife managers use and they are essential on a small property. Food lures in neighboring wildlife and keeps it nearby.  

Previously farmed or cleared areas are attractive and shouldn’t be overlooked, but if you add new plots, consider their location. Keep them centrally located and away from the neighbor’s fence. Use planting guides like those from the Quality Deer Management Association to find crop varieties that will work for you and provide year-round forage.

Catalog all natural browse and mast, which will supplement manmade plots on the property. Ash, aspen, hemlock, basswood, and a variety of regional favorite browse species give deer additional feeding opportunities. Deer and turkeys eat acorns. Apples and berry-producing vegetation are also wildlife magnets. Get advice from a forester and you could bump production with targeted management of these mast producers.

Refuge: Habitat is essential to attracting wildlife. Make an inventory of the escape cover and refuge available. Like food, the best refuge should be centrally located or away from areas of high human traffic.

If you need refuge help you can stack or plant habitat, depending on the property. If you want to stack, consider using a tractor with a loader bucket to push limbs, dead timber and other vegetation into piles. These piles create escape cover for small game and walls that larger species can hide behind. Several piles create large barriers that wildlife can use for a windbreak and you can use to hide your movement while hunting.

Piling timber and using slash to create refuge cover clears the ground for additional saplings and browse to sprout. Selective trimming allows more light to reach the ground to aid in vegetation regeneration.

You can also purchase seed to create cover. Basinger employs this tactic whenever natural cover is missing. Crops like sorghum double as cover and nutrition. Landscaping vegetation, such as varieties of reed grass, can add to refuge habitat and give wildlife a sense of security when brush or timber are scarce. Switchgrass is another alternative, particularly on grassland properties.

Water: Lack of water is a main reason wildlife roam to neighboring properties. If your small tract doesn’t have a creek or pond, you can create a source. A rented skid steer loader, an investment in bentonite to seal a pond, and runoff are the needed elements to build a whitetail waterhole. If runoff is minimal, fill it with a tank every other week. 

If you can’t supply all of these, don’t bail on a small-property management yet. Basinger recommends focusing on cover.

“If you have good cover, you’ll have food much of the year due to the natural browse available,” he said. “For turkeys you have good nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Whitetails will retire to it for sanctuary giving you hunting opportunities to ambush them as they come and go. Put forestry practices into play and you’ll still have great hunting potential.”

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