Taking the Next Step From Hunter to Wildlife Manager Written by: Jerry Smyly

Hunting is a great sport and hobby; one can enjoy nature and provide a little wildgame for the table. The act of taking, preparing, and consuming wildgame is very satisfying and is part of our ancestral heritage. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and gardeners still have a connection to the land; they also have a better understanding of the land and where our food comes from. Too many people today have no grasp of where their food comes from or how it is produced. This is very unfortunate, and is ultimately detrimental to our natural resources.
Farming and hunting are very different; however they both provide food, obviously. A quick look would seem to show that farmers work the land; they reap what they sew, their crops are planted and harvested annually. Hunters enter the field and take wild game that is already on the land, to some degree. In other words it would appear hunters simply harvest a crop that they never planted or cared for; while this may be the case for some, it is certainly not the case for the wildlife manager! Hunting, fishing, and even farming are not just hobbies, past times, or jobs, they are passions; pursued to the fullest by those involved! Managing wildlife is no different. And it is especially gratifying to see hard work put into a parcel of land and seeing the wildlife flourish from improvements you’ve made!
As you may have guessed by the title and previous paragraphs, this article is to basically convince you to not just be a hunter, but a manager; a steward of the land. I know this is not possible for everyone, some people hunt leased or public land; and are restricted by laws and contracts as to what changes they can make to the property. However, if you own the land you hunt, hunt with friends, or have a more flexible lease agreement, I would like to encourage you to take that next step. There is always room for improvement, whether its habitat improvements, access improvement, or better and more selective harvest restrictions (or less restrictions) there is always a way to make things better! That’s basically all I mean when I say to “manage” the land.
Most all hunters take the time, effort, and money to make their hunting a little easier; bush hogging roads, putting up stands or blinds, and planting food plots (to hunt over). Planting food plots is a great first step, and most likely, it is one you’ve already taken. Of course these plots will feed wildlife, but are they providing everything that animal needs. Likely not, no food plot will; but they could certainly help fill in any gaps mother nature may have left. By simply altering the way you look at plots can benefit wildlife on a much broader spectrum. For example adding clovers or other species to your mix of annual grains (typical attractant plots consist of some mix on wheat, oats, and rye or ryegrass) can increase nutrition, palatability, and stretch the use of your plots into the spring and even summer months.
Food plots and how they are viewed is just a simple example of taking the next step. View the plot from the benefit it has to wildlife versus the benefit it has to you. There are numerous ways to improve the habitat and make it more attractive and productive to wildlife. For example: TSI (timber stand improvement) is typically done to benefit merchantability of the trees on a property, however from a wildlife perspective this could be altered a little to include a benefit to mast producing trees, such as oaks, hickories, or beech. Prescribed burning, planting mast trees, year round food plots, fertilizing native browse, controlling invasive species, the list goes on. All of these are tactics that can be used to improve a property’s attractiveness to both game and non-game species alike!
If you are in a position to manage your piece of hunting ground great! You’re in for a lot of work, but it can be extremely rewarding. It is important to step back and take a look at the property. Take its size, topography, and location into account; as these will likely influence or possibly even limit what the property can produce. Figure out what species you most want to manage for, and then figure out what the property already offers to that species, this will help you to figure out what improvements can be made. This can seem like a daunting task! Luckily there is a way to get help. The state DNR has biologists on staff that can help with these decisions, as well as numerous private management and consulting firms. For some of your management decisions such as TSI, a forester may also be needed. There are also numerous books available to help, as well as DVDs and even You Tube videos put together by amateur and professional wildlife/property managers. These can be invaluable with small to mid-size chores that you may want to tackle on your own. Things like planting plots or even planting a few fruit trees are things that you can do yourself; large tree felling and timber harvest will require professionals.
For some things, as with prescribed burning, there are classes that can be taken. Not only do these classes educate, but they can also help you become certified as a prescribed burn manager. The state, in cooperation with private conservation groups also offers day long seminars as well. Food plots, warm season grasses, moist soil management (wetlands), are all topics often covered in these seminars and classes. I would like to encourage everyone to “take the next step” if possible. It is extremely rewarding, and helps one gain a better understanding of nature and how all the animals use what they are provided. If you DO decide to take on this rewarding challenge I hope you would at least consult with a biologist and/or forester, especially in the early going. It is important to set long and short term goals; it is even more important to set REALISTIC goals. A professional will help steer you in the right direction, it will be up to you whether you want to handle the plan alone, with friends, or hire professionals. Hunting is a great hobby and way of life; working the land and making it an even better place for the wildlife who call it home can become quite a passion as well. I would hope we all want to leave our natural resources a little better than we found them and be willing to take “the next step”!

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