The late Grits Gresham was editor of the Louisiana Conservationist in the early ’50s. He initiated a feature column that he named Bayou Browsing, and readers could write to him and ask questions and make comments about Louisiana wildlife.
I admired Grits while growing up, and never missed the American Sportsman TV show when he was in one of the episodes. His pork chop sideburns, wide-brimmed hat, along with his outdoor hunting and fishing skills, made him a Louisiana legend.
Browsing is the term biologists use for the feeding activity of deer. It has long been known that the feeding habits of deer can have a dramatic impact on the landscape.
While hunters generally believe there can never be too many deer, the fact is that habitat can support only so many animals, and when deer numbers increase to a level beyond what the habitat can support, both the deer and the habitat suffer.
A 1950 publication concerning the deer herds in Pennsylvania contained this statement: “Any spike buck is an abnormality, reflecting the over-browsed condition of the range, and spikes are common only when the animals are improperly nourished. Bucks should normally have from 4 to 10 points the first time they produce antlers at 18 months of age.”
The publication shows a photo of a nice 4-inch spike and referred to it as a poorly-fed yearling.
The spike issue has been discussed and cussed ever since the ’50s, but the fact is that when a deer herd is below carrying capacity and there is abundant deer forage, a yearling buck should produce a small rack with several points.
In the pine-dominant plantation forests of Clinton where I do a good bit of hunting, it is becoming common for a yearling (a 1 ½-year-old buck) to have spikes less than 1 inch long. I would love to see our year-old bucks produce 4-inch spikes, but the fact is that nutrition is lacking in our forests.
A pine-dominant forest — one that has been treated with herbicides prior to planting — just does not produce the forage deer need to grow the body and antlers hunters desire.
A good deer browse survey of the habitat will identify what plants are available for deer to eat.
Deer will feed on a variety of plant species. Woody trees and shrubs are the mainstay of the deer’s diet. This includes those desirable species such as oak, maple, elm, greenbriar, trumpet creeper, blackberry and dewberry.
Browse also includes many species of herbaceous plants, often called forbs. Forbs are generally seasonal, with spring and early summer ones appearing on the landscape first and then disappearing as the late-summer and fall plants come on the scene. The composite family and the legume family are two of the important plant families that contain many desirable browse plants.
A sound timber management program with annual management work, cutting, thinning, burning, etc., will generally produce a diverse flora that will provide deer with desirable browse plants.
However, as previously mentioned, the intense pine management practices that are in use today will pretty much reduce available deer forage on the landscape. The browse survey will identify what plants are available for deer to eat and will measure how much of the browse is being eaten.
When browse is lacking, most biologists will suggest supplemental planting to grow desirable forage for deer to offset this lack of native browse. However, if deer numbers are high, the deer will often eat up the plantings and little will be gained.
Consequently, the deer harvest and the deer habitat work go hand in hand in keeping the deer herd in balance with the habitat.
But again, hunters want to see all the deer in the world when they go hunting, and this creates problems. Supplemental feeding is often suggested to offset the lack of browse, but one better have all the money in the world to do this because it can get expensive feeding deer year round.
A browse survey can provide an estimate regarding deer numbers. An evaluation of the harvest data will also indicate problems with the habitat. Low body weights, poor antler development and poor reproduction are signs of problems.
If there are problems with the habitat, the browse survey will generally pick up on them. Over-browsing of regenerating trees and shrubs is easily recognized. A browse line around the edge of a field is very apparent. Honeysuckle that normally grows like a vine all over vegetation will simply climb up a tree, out of reach of deer, and then it will begin to spread out. It also can be eaten so much that you either cannot find it or you have to get on your knees to see it growing on the ground.
In the upland hardwoods the small shrub commonly called strawberry bush is a highly preferred deer browse and is subject to over-browsing. Again when deer numbers are high, this shrub somewhat disappears, but if you get on your knees and scratch through the leaves one can usually find small stems of it.
One of the key plants I focus on is elderberry. This is a common shrub found all across the state, in all habitat types, and is readily eaten by deer. On our small property in Clinton we have elderberry scattered all around, and deer are eating it but not to the point where it will be over-browsed and eventually be lost.
I consider our herd to be in balance with the habitat, although most hunters probably would not want to hunt there.
However, 10 miles to the east on another small tract of land that I hunt, I cannot tell you the last time I saw a stem of elderberry. It pretty much has disappeared from the landscape due to the high deer numbers, even though it is easy to regenerate elderberry with rootstock and seeds.
Of course, on this tract of land deer body and antler growth is the pits.
On a tract of land in Morganza that also holds high deer numbers, elderberry is scarce and most of the time is found growing in the middle of a clump of briars that protects it from over-browsing. Deer will eat stems of elderberry as large as a finger.
The agriculture forages in this region help to sustain the deer herd, along with the intense forage plantings of the landowner.
It is hard to believe, but just like in the hardwoods of Pennsylvania, an over-abundant deer herd can have an impact on the regeneration of oaks in Louisiana.
Landowners who manage for a mixed hardwood forest need to keep this in mind and keep deer numbers in balance with the habitat.
Right now in Clinton and Morganza the deer are hammering the young oaks such as water oak, white oak, cow oak and striped oak. On our property, I have had to cage the cow oaks to keep the deer from eating them up.
Another sign of an abundant deer herd and their over-browsing activity is their impact on forage plantings. On our small tract, the clover and wheat are knee high, but on the other tract of land 10 miles away the food plots are entirely different.
I followed my advice and got an early start on the planting (planted soybeans on both tracts in late March). The beans sprouted and were growing, but on the site with high deer numbers the deer have already wiped out one patch and probably are working on the other two sites as I write this column.
There is a lot of good literature available about deer browse and habitat surveys. LDWF has private land biologists whose job it is to work with clubs and landowners to help them properly manage the deer herd and habitat. So rather than spending all your time this spring and summer trying to catch a fish, take time to walk across your land or club and do a little bayou browsing.
You might just gain some insight regarding your deer herd that will not only help you with your management program, but with your time spent on the deer stand.