Habitat management “is basic to wildlife enterprises,” says wildlife biologist Russell Stevens, and without it, landowners hoping to add a wildlife management dimension to their farming or ranching operation will be hard-pressed to provide the kind of experience hunters, fishermen, even bird watchers, are willing to pay for.

A wildlife and range specialist at the Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Okla., Stevens says a landowner might be able to do something with pen-raised and released animals on marginal wildlife habitat, but for native wildlife such as whitetail deer, bobwhite quail, and turkey, he has to have the proper habitat — more than a monoculture of bermudagrass or other forage crop.”

A combination of uncertain income from traditional agricultural enterprises and a burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation make wildlife management a promising enterprise for landowners, he notes. But a successful operation takes more than declaring a ranch available for lease, guided hunts, or other recreational use.

“Good wildlife habitat includes native rangeland, with a mixture of native grasses and forbs (broadleaved herbaceous plants), brush, and/or timber.”

Maintaining an adequate amount of forbs may mean changes in weed control practices for ranchers, Stevens says. “Many ranchers spray every year to kill weeds, but some of those weed species provide excellent food for wildlife.”

He says Illinois bundleflower, partridge pea, tick clover, and western ragweed, among others, provide excellent food and cover for birds and mammals, such as bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and deer.

“Most legumes (forbs) are also good, and offer both direct and indirect food sources for quail. The birds can eat the seed produced by forbs, and plant communities dominated by forbs provide excellent ‘bugging grounds,’ areas that attract a lot of insects. Quail and turkey, especially their poults, rely on insects as a source of protein. Many species of forbs are a very important food source for whitetail deer as well.”

Stevens says ranchers interested in implementing a wildlife enterprise must strive to manage for a balance between wildlife and cattle to make the best use of the land. “They can’t maximize one without sacrificing the other. But a rancher can manage his acreage to accommodate cattle and wildlife.”

Income from wildlife can make a significant contribution to the overall operation. “It’s not uncommon for deer leases to generate $10 per acre in north-central Texas. It takes about 10 acres per animal unit on well managed rangeland in north-central Texas.”

A landowner can net about $100 from wildlife off the same acreage he needs to raise one cow. But each has a place, and that’s where attention to management details comes in. “Stocking rate is important,” Stevens says. “Overstocking cattle will reduce habitat quality for most species of wildlife. Also, ranchers trying to enhance wildlife habitat have to re-think weed and brush control.”

But with those changes come potential savings. Instead of annual herbicide applications to maximize forage production for cattle, prescribed burns and a well planned, flexible grazing plan can improve or maintain wildlife.

“Also, ranchers need to familiarize themselves with the different habitat requirements for whitetail deer, bobwhite quail, and turkey, and strive to meet the needs of the target species in their management plan. Depending on the species, ranchers must maintain varying amounts of brush or timber that’s well-distributed throughout their property to provide adequate cover and additional food sources.”

He says a mix of native forage and timberland offers a good opportunity to develop wildlife. Water becomes important as well, for both cattle and deer. “Typically, within a 100-mile radius of Ardmore, water rarely is a limiting factor for ranching or wildlife habitat. But farther west, developing water sources may be more important.”

Stevens says ranchers who have concentrated their management on cattle for years by converting native grass to monocultures of bermudagrass, fescue, etc., and eliminating brush and timber, may have a bigger challenge bringing land back to a more wildlife-friendly place than for a rancher who has maintained property in rangeland with a good mix of brush and/or timber.

“The first step would be to have a wildlife biologist evaluate the property,” Stevens says. “The worst case would be acreage with mostly bermudagrass pastures, with little brushland or timber. The rancher who has concentrated on keeping pastures clean may have a difficult time bringing it back to a more usable condition for wildlife.”

In many instances, improving rangeland for many species of wildlife, specifically bobwhite quail, may require stocking cattle numbers at a rate below the optimum carrying capacity for the ranch. Cutting back on cattle numbers allows the landowner more management options to meet habitat requirements for bobwhite quail and other wildlife species.

“Established bermudagrass also provides significant challenges, since it competes aggressively with other plants and is hard to take out.” Ranchers who have a combination of bermudagrass and timber often leave the timber unmanaged. If needed, a combination of tools such as prescribed burning, chemical, and mechanical treatments can help improve unmanaged timberland and create openings to allow more plant diversity.

“That will enhance wildlife habitat,” Stevens says. Landowners often plant food plots to improve wildlife nutrition, especially for deer in an effort to increase growth rate and antler size.

“Food plots are commonly used, but are very much misunderstood. A food plot is not a cure-all for wildlife habitat management. We focus on establishing and maintaining native plant populations, first and foremost. Native plants, in the right abundance and balance, provide good wildlife habitat and often exceed nutrient requirements for whitetail deer. In this situation, free-ranging deer need little else.

Stevens says a big problem with food plots is that in years when they are most needed, ranchers can’t grow them. The same adverse conditions to which native plants are adapted limits potential for food plots. Deer feeders also may get more credit than they deserve for putting more weight and bigger antlers on free-ranging deer. “The problem is that it is very expensive to establish enough food plots or put out enough feeders in a free-ranging situation to supplement each deer in the herd. We might see increased body weights and bigger racks on a few deer that routinely use the feeders.”

But for the entire herd, the advantage is often minimal in a free-ranging situation. Wildlife needs space to thrive, Stevens says. “Improving deer population parameters such as buck-to-doe ratio, buck age structure, and deer density is difficult for a landowner with less than 2,000 acres. Without adequate room, deer are susceptible to getting shot on a neighbor’s property.”

Stevens says deer management cooperatives may provide a solution for landowners with limited acreage. Several property owners with limited acreage but with like-minded deer population goals may cooperate in a management program to achieve those goals for deer and other wildlife. In Southern Oklahoma and Northeast Texas, deer offer the most potential for profitable wildlife enterprises. “But a bobwhite quail lease is a highly-sought commodity as well. Those leases are becoming harder and harder to find.”

He doesn’t recommend that landowners alter property to attract feral hogs. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to manage acreage to attract hogs. The negative ecological impact they have on land can be significant and they’re hard to eradicate once established. But, they do offer a hunting opportunity, and if landowners have hogs on their property, they can trap and shoot them, or they can lease hunting rights and turn a liability into an asset.” Landowners should not rule out fishing leases either, Stevens says.

“Watersheds or ponds, with good fishing opportunities, can bring additional income. Some fishing clubs look for these resources and may pay for daily or seasonal fishing rights, structured so there is minimal time required by the landowner, and where the landowner reserves the right to stop fishing activities if clients do not respect property rights or ignore safety issues.

“Most clubs will remove members for breaking rules.”

Stevens says landowners interested in enhancing wildlife habitat should contact a knowledgeable wildlife biologist. He suggests his organization, The Noble Foundation, as well as the State Departments of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Cooperative Extension Service, and private wildlife consultants.

He also recommends the Noble Foundation’s Web site, www.noble.org, as a good starting place for information on wildlife and livestock enterprises, as well as a place to market hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com