Photo by Mark Gibboney.

May 1, 2023

When Hunting Season’s Over, Habitat Season Begins

There’s rustling in the leaves. You scan the woods from your tree stand. There, across the ravine, is the buck you’ve been waiting for. Your heart skips a beat, and time freezes.

A brown and black mother wild turkey stands guard near her small fluffy brown, black, and tan chicks along the edge of some tall green vegetation.
Photo by Alvin Freund, USFWS.

Many of us live for this moment, and when we put our hunting gear away for the year, we feel a twinge of sadness that the season is over. But that moment is just a sliver of time in the life of a hunter, an instant in the life of the deer, and a blink of the eye in the life of the forest. What happens the rest of the time counts every bit as much.

When hunting season is over, habitat season begins. Without quality habitat to support wildlife all year long, seeing a trophy buck wouldn’t happen. After all, that buck didn’t just appear in the woods on opening day. He lived through many winters, springs, summers and falls. He needed quality habitat throughout his entire life.

The habitat work we do in the off-season has a direct impact on our success in the field the following hunting season. For example, late winter is a good time to remove invasive species. You’re likely to have encountered the notorious trio of woody invasives in Illinois: autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). These and many other aggressive woody plants degrade habitat wherever they pop up. When they arrive, “there goes the neighborhood” for native wildlife. Invasive brush transforms prairies and woodlands into dense, impenetrable thickets. These support fewer species of wildlife – and they’re no fun to hunt in.

A reddish-brown and white speckled fawn is curled up nestled in amongst some green plants.
Photo courtesy of the IDNR.

Spring and summer are a good time to knock back invasive herbaceous plants. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) control, for example, is an early-spring task. This aggressive wildflower spreads rapidly in woodlands, displacing native wildflowers and the animals that rely on them. In prairies, the noxious weed Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) can easily overrun native plants, creating a prickly monoculture where a diverse plant community once thrived. Other herbaceous species to watch for include false chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) and common teasel (Dipsacus fullonum). These species, like bullies on a playground, inhibit native plants. Fewer native plants means fewer native animals, and habitat goes down the tubes.

An increasing number of hunters and other conservationists hear the calling and are finding joy in native habitat restoration and management to benefit wildlife species, both game and non-game species alike. With only fractions of pre-settlement grassland, wetland, and forest habitats remaining and the rest being degraded by invasive species and other perturbations, the timing could not be more critical. The response of wildlife to restoring native prairie buffers along agriculture fields, invasive species removal, prescribed fire and woodland restoration can be rapid, even within a year. There are few things more rewarding than implementing these practices and then watching a hen turkey lead her poults into the prairie to find insects, a doe find comfort in leaving her fawn amongst the forbs while she grazes nearby, jumping the first rabbit or covey of quail seen on a farm in years, or even waterfowl raising a brood on a recently created wetland.

Planting food plots has grown in popularity the last few decades and while it has its place in the “tool box” of wildlife management, biologists are finding native habitat restoration to be more beneficial to wildlife and biodiversity conservation in general, as well as cost-effective. One prescribed fire or prairie buffer planting, for example, can provide enormous amounts of nutritional food and shelter for wildlife throughout most of the year. Wildlife habitat can be boiled down into four basic components: food, water, cover and space. While food plots attract wildlife to desirable areas, food is rarely the most limiting factor of the four components in many areas. If all four of the components are being met in close proximity to a property and during critical life stages and seasons, wildlife will thrive.

This only scratches the surface of the large topic of native habitat restoration and management, and we plan to dive more into various topics presented here in later articles. In the meantime, there is a wealth of information and places to start for those intrigued to dive further. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ CICADA website provides fact sheets and printable guides for landowners and other conservationists. The University of Illinois Extension Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and your local state forester can also provide guidance. Groups like Pheasants and Quail Forever and Ducks Unlimited are also in the business of habitat management, and they offer a wealth of resources. There are also science-based podcast options such as Natural Resources University where a wealth of information can be gained while on those long drives.

A group of people in a summer woodland work to remove some green invasive plants. To the left is where the plants have been removed and the right is where the thick patch of invasive plants are yet to be removed.
Individuals removing garlic mustard in a woodland. To the right is a thick patch of garlic mustard yet to be removed. Photo by Connie Gray, GA-EPPC,

Habitat management is a year-round investment in our own future success in the outdoors and that of future generations. Hunting provides a way to enjoy and study nature and connect with the land in way that a minority of folks do these days, by providing our own food resources. For many hunters, native habitat management in the off-season has become one of their favorite pastimes, serves as another way to connect with nature, and can also make for quality time spent with children, family, and friends. Harvesting a few wild game to feed the family becomes that much more rewarding when it comes from habitat we know we had a hand in providing. Much like tending to a garden in some ways. Once we start looking at the land through the lens of habitat and our active partnership with nature, we find ourselves looking for our next habitat improvement project as much as the game animal we are pursuing.

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.

Nathan Grider is an avid hunter, angler and conservationist with a Master’s in Biology from the University of Illinois, Springfield. He has been employed at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for 12 years where he currently serves as the Wildlife Programs Section Manager in the Division of Wildlife Resources. He was raised in Montgomery County and currently lives in Springfield.

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