Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Deer herd © Matt Stieve

Deer herd on Matt Stieve’s Sauk County DMAP property.
© Matt Stieve

February 2015

Wisconsin's Deer Management Assistance Program

Benefitting wildlife, habitat and people.

Meredith Penthorn and Bob Nack

When Dan Holehouse wanted to learn how to increase the number of deer and other wildlife on his property, he decided to give the new Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) a try.

Holehouse, who together with his brother owns land in Iron County, understands that improving property for deer often requires a team effort.

"In my neck of the woods, the deer populations are bad at best," Holehouse says. "What I am trying to accomplish through my involvement in DMAP is, quite simply, to make my property the best it can be with the resources I have available to me. If I have access to personnel and knowledge that can help me achieve this goal, why wouldn't I?"

Matt Stieve, a DMAP cooperator in Sauk County, wants to bring deer numbers to a healthier level for the property.

"Because the deer numbers are high on our farm and are negatively affecting tree regeneration, crop harvest and other flora and fauna, I wanted to get involved in DMAP so we could get additional antlerless tags at a reduced cost," Stieve says. "I am hoping to maintain a healthy herd of deer on our property to have continued quality deer hunting experiences. This healthy deer herd will ultimately help establish a healthy forest and profitable cropland."

Most landowners enrolled in Wisconsin's new Deer Management Assistance Program are certainly passionate about deer and deer hunting; however, not all are deer hunters. Some non–hunting DMAP cooperators are equally passionate and concerned about the impacts of deer browse on forest regeneration and other wildlife species.

Cooperators recognize that deer and other wildlife thrive on healthy habitat — and habitat improvement is a central component of DMAP.

A partnership for healthy deer and healthy habitat

The program's foundation is a partnership between landowners, hunters and the Department of Natural Resources that recognizes the relationship between healthy deer and healthy habitat.

In fact, 95 percent of applications accepted in 2014 indicated that habitat improvement was a common motivation for landowners to sign up. While deer certainly benefit from better access to food and cover, landowners may also begin to notice more game birds, small mammals, songbirds and other wildlife as a result of habitat management activities. The potential diversity of plants and animals that results from proper habitat management can also enhance the aesthetic value of the property and increase opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Cooperators in each of DMAP's three enrollment levels receive access to educational resources rooted in wildlife habitat and deer management — these materials help explain the connection between wildlife and the habitat they need to survive.

Level 1 cooperators receive property management advice from their local wildlife biologist and invitations to attend workshops that will help develop their management ideas, while cooperators at levels 2 and 3 also receive an onsite visit with local DNR staff and a site–specific management plan.

Management plans include recommendations for habitat improvement practices that align with land use activities, like timber and agricultural production.

Level 2 and 3 cooperators may also receive reduced–price antlerless harvest tags, to assist in achieving habitat and deer management objectives.

Group cooperatives, with multiple landowners working together, encourage landowners to reach out to neighbors with common goals, and can allow cooperators whose properties do not meet the minimum acreage requirements for Level 2 or 3 to qualify for these benefits. Group cooperatives extend wildlife and habitat management practices over a larger area, which can improve recreational experiences, reduce habitat management expenses, allow a broader range of management activities and potentially attract a wider variety of game and non–game wildlife to the property.

First year enrollments

In 2014, the DNR accepted all Level 1 applicants and as many Level 2 and 3 landowners and group cooperatives as was practical while still preserving a high caliber of customer service.

Big game ecologist Melinda Nelson discusses deer with a DMAP landowner © Bob Nack
DNR assistant big game ecologist Melinda Nelson discusses deer with a DMAP landowner during a site visit.
© Bob Nack

The Department of Natural Resources enrolled 167 properties representing 47 counties and close to 50,000 acres of land in 2014. The agency dedicated staff time to developing program details, conducting site visits, writing management plans and communicating with landowners. The agency worked with many motivated landowners over the past year, and it has been a good learning experience for staff as well.

For example, staff developed a browse index, ranging from light to severe, to provide a standard of comparison for levels of browse across all DMAP properties. During site visits, biologists and foresters estimate the percent of stems browsed at random locations in habitat blocks to assess the level of browse impacts on a given property. High browse impact suggests that past or current deer numbers may not be in balance with their available habitat. Information collected on the site visit, including the browse index and landowner property goals, will help DNR staff determine if DMAP antlerless tags should be issued.

During a site visit in Taylor County, DNR forester Brad Hutnik identified a layer of ironwood in the forest understory that could be removed to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor.

"Identifying and removing the ironwood will allow regeneration of more desirable tree species for wildlife, such as oak or maple," Hutnik explains.

Oak trees produce hard mast (acorns), which is important for multiple wildlife species, while young maple trees provide important browse for deer.

Mature forest was disadvantageous for deer on the Holehouse property.

"It was discussed almost immediately that a portion of our woods had too much old growth timber, which needs to be harvested. This in turn will stimulate new plant growth and ultimately provide a better food source for our deer and other wildlife," Holehouse says. "This will offer better hunting opportunities while maintaining Managed Forest Law rules and getting the most profit from our timber."

DMAP management plans, presented to most landowners in January 2015, contain habitat and wildlife management recommendations that help guide landowners through short– and long–term habitat maintenance and restoration. Recommendations for responsible deer herd management seek to find a balance between maintaining quality habitat while at the same time providing an enjoyable hunting experience. Cooperators are asked to record their wildlife observations and collect biological data on harvested deer, which may include jaw bones for aging, dressed weight, lactation status or antler measurements.

Not only does data collection provide biologists with a more complete picture of deer health and productivity, it may also allow landowners to monitor their progress toward achieving property management goals.

However, habitat and deer management resources are only the tip of the iceberg. The department intends to further engage DMAP cooperators through educational programs and focus groups.

The Department of Natural Resources recently wrapped up the first year of the program, and is working with cooperators to determine what went well and where improvement is needed.

Regional workshops and field days will further involve local DMAP landowners and target deer and habitat issues that matter most to them. Slated for later this year, these events will provide networking opportunities for landowners to share information and advice as they accomplish property goals. These outreach opportunities will keep cooperators apprised of new DMAP initiatives and the latest in deer and habitat management innovations. Citizen science projects may also become available to interested landowners.

While DMAP enrollment was limited to private land in 2014, the department anticipates that the program will be available for public land in 2015. DNR staff and public land managers will work together to identify property habitat goals and opportunities to increase public hunting enjoyment.

The application period for 2015 is currently open for all levels of enrollment and the deadline for applying as a Level 2 or Level 3 individual or group cooperative is March 1.

All Level 2 and 3 applications that are not accepted in 2015 will receive Level 1 benefits so they can learn more about the program at no cost.

Level 1 applications will be accepted on an ongoing basis.

Interested landowners can apply by visiting the DMAP website for more information at dnr.wi.gov, keyword "DMAP."

From managed forests to small suburban backyards, DMAP offers tools to improve the land for wildlife. All landowners can receive guidance on cost–sharing through government and nonprofit programs. Landowners may also attract new wildlife species to their property and lay the groundwork for long–term conservation and recreation. This begins by providing quality habitat to support healthy wildlife.

"If you enjoy the outdoors and the resources Wisconsin has to offer, it's everyone's obligation to work together to make our state's lands and resources even better," Holehouse says. "For my brother and me, being chosen as a DMAP property gave us new enthusiasm for our land."

Whether you want to enhance hunting opportunities,improve the variety of plants and other wildlife on your property or learn other ways to contribute to the preservation of Wisconsin's natural heritage, DMAP is a great place to start.

Meredith Penthorn is a communications specialist for DNR's big game management program.

Bob Nack is DNR's DMAP coordinator and chief of the big game management program.