Unsightly clearcuts herald rebirth of forests and wildlife

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Few things are more pleasant than the serenity and splendor of an autumn hardwood forest.

Clearcuts create a perfect blend of browse and cover that support a higher deer density than older forests.   ROB PAVEY/STAFF
ROB PAVEY/STAFF
Clearcuts create a perfect blend of browse and cover that support a higher deer density than older forests.
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That’s always been my feeling, so you can imagine my disappointment last winter to see loggers noisily at work in our hunting club’s largest swamps.

By the time turkey season arrived, it was a virtual wasteland of stumps, stubble and dirt. Only a thin ribbon of trees along Brier Creek was spared.

That was in April, of course, and now that we are well into November, I am viewing our regenerating clearcuts through different eyes – and more respect.

The first thing I noticed was how rapidly the fertile, once-shaded swamp soil turned green again with briars, honeysuckle and saplings.

During preseason scouting, as I spent some idle hours on a ridgetop with my binoculars, I was also impressed by the volume and variety of songbirds that thrived there.

And what about the deer?

This season, it has been difficult to occupy a stand in or near our clearcuts without seeing deer, and some of those deer have been whoppers.

In a quest for hard facts to validate my anecdotal observations, I called veteran whitetail deer biologist Kip Adams, who is also the Quality Deer Management Association’s outreach and education director.

Are unsightly clearcuts a sure sign that better things are in store for the deer? Absolutely.

“The carrying capacity definitely improves, and it usually improves a lot,” he said. “There are lots and lots of studies to back that up.”

Mature forests, even those with chestnut oaks and other deer-favored foods, typically produce 50 to 100 pounds of browse per acre, he said.

“Most of that is leaves and buds, and when you do have acorns, it is only for a portion of the year, and not necessarily every year.”

Clearcuts, by comparison, average 10 to 20 times as much browse – about 1,000 pounds per acre – and much of it is found in the first few feet off the ground, where deer can get to it.

Clearcuts create other benefits, with cover being a primary one.

“These areas can not only support more deer, but all that cover is especially important in the Southeast, where it can help increase fawn survival,” Adams said.

In recent years, there is mounting evidence that fawn predation by coyotes it taking a larger toll on whitetails than previously thought, so thicker cover that helps fawns survive can be seen as a benefit.

The first few years after timber removal provides the most benefits to wildlife, out to about year seven, he said.

After two or three years, tall, thick stands of willow and other light-loving foliage can also establish impenetrable sanctuaries where bucks can grow old and large.

“And throughout all of these phases, you have the blackberries, the honeysuckle and all the soft mass species,” he said.

Hunters, myself included, have often viewed the logging crew as the grim reaper. In the right situation, though, logging is the rebirth of a forest, and a new opportunity for its wildlife.

“Sometimes people don’t realize that is can be a very healthy process, both for the forest and for the wildlife,” Adams siad.


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