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Strategic tree planting, cutting in Upper Peninsula could help suffering deer population rebound Submitted: 07/22/2016
Crystal Falls, L'Anse - Hunters, biologists, and wildlife watchers worry about the low deer population in northern Wisconsin.

But in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the situation is even worse.

Wildlife biologists say nearly every single fawn died after the harsh winters of 2012 and 2013, further hurting a struggling herd. In fact, the population has been on the decline since 1995.
Now, for the first time, biologists, foresters, government officials, timber harvesters, and other interested groups are coming together to address the problem as part of the Upper Peninsula Habitat Workgroup.

Their work goes beyond meeting and talking. It's tangible.

On a hot summer morning near Crystal Falls, two men swung picks into the ground over and over, planting a tiny conifer seedling in each hole as they went.

"If you build it, they will come," said Roger Jaworski, the Forestry Assistance Program forester for Iron and Baraga counties.

Jaworski and his team are trying to build a habitat for the deer that encourages winter survival.

"One hundred percent of the deer that live in certain areas are concentrated on only 17 percent of the landscape in the wintertime," said wildlife biologist Jim Hammill, a member of the Upper Peninsula Habitat Workgroup.

Jaworski's workspace part is one of those areas, known as a deer wintering complex or deer yard. This one is called the Deerfoot Lodge Deer Wintering Complex. Dozens of them cover the Upper Peninsula, but the lack of high-quality deer wintering complexes seems to be the main factor in plummeting deer populations.

"Deer are heavily impacted after bad winters," Hammill said. "They're impacted because, especially the female segment, the does are in such poor condition that they can't give birth to good-birthweight fawns."

A good deer wintering complex includes a thick conifer canopy, which blocks some of the UP's heavy snowfall.

"The snow levels are substantially reduced. It makes it easier [for the deer] to navigate, maybe evade predators, and just get around. They expend less energy," Jaworski said. "If the snow levels are really high, and they don't have any habitat, they just go through so many calories in a day. It's hard to survive the winter if it's really harsh."

Jaworski's white pine, spruce, and balsam fir trees should mature in somewhere between 20 and 40 years.

"My hope is that they'll be a nice pocket, all green conifer trees [so the deer] can come in," he said.

"That gives deer protection from winter weather conditions like deep snow and extreme cold temperatures," added Hammill.

While Jaworski's team planted seedlings near Crystal Falls, a group of loggers did the opposite on a plot east of L'Anse. Although they were busy cutting and hauling timber, they had a similar goal in mind.

The land is owned by Weyerhaeuser, a timber holdings company that owns 580,000 acres of land in the Upper Peninsula. Weyerhaeuser makes money, in part, by having contractors harvest timber from its lands and selling the wood to mills.

Even though it's a for-profit enterprise, Weyerhaeuser is also in the business of improving winter deer habitat. The land east of L'Anse is part of the Huron Mountains Deer Wintering Complex.

"This is something we can do. We know it's the right thing to do," said Weyerhaeuser harvesting and silviculture supervisor Jeff Joseph.

Weyerhaeuser crafts its management plans with the help of experts like those in the Upper Peninsula Habitat Workgroup. On timber stands, it looks to leave areas of high-canopy cover. It also works to create food sources like sugar maple stands, which produce ground-level foliage for deer to eat.

"This is exactly what we're looking for," Hammill said while looking at a piece of the Weyerhaeuser lands. "The combination of having thermal cover and a good food resource as close to each other as possible is really what you want in these deer wintering complexes."

That's a response Joseph likes to hear.

"We knew [managing for deer] was the right thing to do," he said. "We didn't always know why, but when biologists like Jim and the other biologists with the state that we work with, say, 'You guys are doing what we asked, and what we want,' that makes us feel good."

Whether planting or harvesting, improving winter deer habitat in the Upper Peninsula will take patience. But, if people like Jaworski, Hammill, and Joseph project things correctly, the deer population just might start coming back.

Written By: Ben Meyer

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