Gun season’s seventh day was just starting as my uncle and I climbed the hill behind his farmhouse in southwestern Wisconsin. We stopped occasionally to catch our breath and let daylight creep in from the east. As we neared the crest, we paused more often to carefully scan the opposite hillside and a brush-choked draw below. Thickets of prickly ash, raspberries and blackberries blanketed the narrow, V-shaped gully from top to bottom and merged into sumac and red cedar on the flanks. The thickets ceded to fallow fields farther to the sides and an oak ridge above.
Just as my uncle was explaining that deer often take cover in this draw during gun season, a buck blasted up the far hillside. The big whitetail put a wide-branched red oak between us, so all we saw after his initial launch were bursts of hide and tines as he disappeared over a ridge 250 yards away.
Twenty-seven years later I still can see that buck’s giant rack. We’d raised our rifles and tried to get a lock, but neither of us had fired a shot. Today that brushy gully still attracts deer when gunshots echo across the surrounding hills. My aunt’s father had unintentionally created the deer sanctuary in that draw long before. Quite simply, he couldn’t farm the gully so he let it stay wild.
Likewise, the draw can’t be hunted easily, unless you count hit-and-miss drives during gun season. Even today its underbrush remains so thick you can’t see more than 50 yards, and winds swirl so unpredictably throughout the corridor that short-range stand-hunts with bow or firearm are futile.
What Makes a Good Sanctuary?
When someone asks the definition of a deer sanctuary, the answer is simple: A place no one wants to hunt or farm. Hunters have broadened that definition in recent years by designating areas they voluntarily don’t hunt. Some go further by forbidding all human entry for everything except retrieving a wounded deer. Their intention, of course, is to create a whitetail haven, a place where deer find enough food, water, cover and isolation to feel safe, even during hunting season. With luck, some deer seeking refuge there will live beyond 30 months, and thereby provide a reservoir of mature, big-antlered bucks.
“Sanctuaries are as important on the properties I manage as passing up young bucks,” said Dr. Grant Woods of Woods and Associates, who is located in southwestern Missouri. “Deer must feel comfortable moving around in there. The less they’re stressed, the better their chances of maximizing their potential.”
When hunting public lands, few areas are off-limits to hunting or other outdoor recreation. But that doesn’t mean deer sanctuaries are scarce on public lands; in fact, the reason many lands ended up in public ownership is because they were never easily accessible, and they couldn’t be developed or profitably farmed. As the early farmers abandoned thin-, sandy- or soggy-soiled properties in regions with short growing seasons, the tax-delinquent lands ended up in public ownership by default.
Even as forests regenerated on the old farmsteads, attracting deer and other wildlife, they remained difficult to hunt. A recent Penn State University study of hunting pressure in a rugged, hilly region of Pennsylvania found 80 percent of hunters stayed within a third-mile of a road; as a result, deer seeking refuge on steep hillsides even a half-mile from a road seldom get shot.
These “de facto refuges” become deer havens because all but the most persistent, stubborn, well-conditioned hunters avoid them. Consistently successful hunters come prepared for long walks and difficult drags. Heck, some even take a perverse pleasure in the challenge.
Other common sanctuaries include private lands where landowners forbid hunting and trespassing, or public parks and recreational areas that prohibit hunting. As urban sprawl pushes into rural America, it subtly creates widespread deer sanctuaries as states, cities, towns, counties and homeowner associations adopt restrictive shooting laws and ordinances; for example, in 2005 when Southern Illinois University studied hunter distribution in the state’s 98 (of 102) counties that allow firearm hunting, researchers discovered that 27 percent of Illinois’ deer habitat was technically off limits to hunters.
How to Create Sanctuaries
Such sanctuaries reduce hunting opportunities and deer management. In contrast, voluntary sanctuaries that hunters create on lands they own or lease can improve hunting and local herds through habitat work and deer-harvest prescriptions. To reap maximum benefits, hunters should plan this management carefully. Whenever possible, they establish the sanctuaries toward the center of the property in tough terrain.
But if effective sanctuaries were as easy as posting “Do Not Enter!” or “No Trespassing” signs, everyone would be doing it. Good sanctuaries are an endless work project if you want them to become a whitetail green zone. Grant Woods establishes sanctuaries on his steepest terrain. “You can’t get a food plot in there anyway, and the land’s only use is timber production,” he said. “But it’s very important for sanctuaries to function as natural-food sources, too.”
To produce cover and food, Woods creates a patchwork of openings in his sanctuaries by felling swaths of red cedar trees and burning them. The cedars had grown so thick on the hillsides that nothing could grow beneath them. Annual spring burns keep the sites open and regenerate native leafy plants that provide abundant, nutritious food at a critical time for deer. By exposing the ground to sunlight, the cuts also generate thicker cover.
These habitat improvements further increase the likelihood that deer won’t need large home ranges to meet their needs. To verify the land’s holding power on deer, Woods compares trail-camera photographs of bucks when talking deer with neighbors.
“Of all the bucks I’ve photographed on my property, I’ve only seen one of them show up on a neighbor’s trail camera,” Woods said. “That’s significant because older bucks tend to travel less, probably because they spend most of their time where they find the best habitat.”
Mickey Hellickson, Ph.D., of Orion Wildlife Management Services in Texas, reports similar results on property he manages in Iowa. “Midwestern deer tend to have fairly small home ranges,” Hellickson said. “We photograph most of our mature bucks at only two or three of our camera sites. Whether they’ve always stayed close to home, we don’t know. They might have reached maturity because they’ve never moved much. Maybe they’ve always been lazy or timid. Either way, the better habitat you provide, the more reasons they have to stay.”