Written By Joshua VanBrakle.

Posted on April 28th, 2016.

Tagged with Deer.

Share it!

You know you’re in for an adventure when the first thing a landowner says to you is, “So have you heard about my psychotic deer behavior?”

You know you’re in for an adventure when the first thing a landowner says to you is, “So have you heard about my psychotic deer behavior?”

That was Dan’s question to me on the cold March morning I drove out to his family’s land in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. I had gone there to do a story on food plots, a subject this retired New Jersey police officer is a master of. He has them scattered all around his woodlot: a former hayfield here, a forest tent caterpillar-killed section of woods there. In total he has 36 acres of them, all planted with nutritious deer foods like clover, turnips, and brassica. He adds a new food plot almost every year, usually about an acre in size.

His latest project is on a ridgetop that lost many of its trees to a forest tent caterpillar outbreak. On the day of my visit, Dan is in the process of removing those trees. He’ll then disk the soil, mix in several tons of lime and hundreds of pounds of fertilizer, and finally plant a mix of clover and brassica.

image2

Dan (right) shows me and fellow forester Karl VonBerg (left) the site of his latest food plot in the making.

Dan’s justifiably proud of the work he’s done, and protective of it too. He asked me not to identify where his property is, and to use only his first name so poachers wouldn’t find out about his land. Considering that in our brief two-hour tour we see a dozen deer, more than I’ve seen in the woods the whole previous winter, I understand his concern. These aren’t scrawny critters, either. They’re the largest, healthiest white-tails I’ve seen in the Catskills, and this is in March, a time when most deer are thin and hungry after scraping through the winter.

Even with all these deer, Dan’s woods are in better shape than many I’ve visited. It’s common for deer to eat themselves out of house and home, damaging young native trees and shrubs and harming other wildlife in the process. On Dan’s property, though, tree seedlings and waist-high blackberry bushes are abundant. These plants are some of the first to go if deer become too numerous in a woodlot.

As Dan shows me around his property more, I start to realize that his self-described psychotic deer behavior isn’t just about deer. At one point we drive past an area of dense spruce trees. Dan planted them 25 years ago, intending to sell them as Christmas trees. He abandoned that plan though, and now they serve as a windbreak to shelter snowshoe hare.

Other projects abound. Dan’s property doesn’t have many oak trees, but for those few that are there and healthy, Dan has removed the trees right around them to give them more room to grow. That added space will let the oaks develop bigger canopies, and in turn produce more acorns.

image3

Giving an oak tree more room to grow by cutting down smaller trees next to it will let it develop a bigger canopy. That bigger canopy will gather more sunlight and give the oak more energy to produce acorns.

Then there are the wild apple trees. Dan’s pruned more than 300 of them on his land, 24 this past winter alone. Pruning apple trees helps them develop more fruit, which feeds deer, bears, and numerous other animals. Dan always prunes in the winter, because then deer can eat the buds on the removed limbs

image4

A few of the wild apple trees on Dan’s property. Keeping them pruned lets the trees concentrate their resources on growing apples, an important fall food for deer and bears.

And what does Dan do with the downed wood created from all that pruning, oak tree releasing, and food plot constructing? “I used to burn it,” Dan tells me, but then he discovered that grouse, fishers, and rabbits loved the interlocking brush. Now he builds up the brush in piles to help out these critters. He’s taken to calling the final result “rabitat.”

image5

When Dan starts making a food plot, he often has to clear some trees to open up the area. He puts the limbs and branches into brush piles like this one, which support a variety of smaller animals.

As we return to his house, we see still more evidence of Dan’s wildlife activities. Just as he’s psychotic about deer, he also admits to being “psychotic about bluebirds.” He has 30 bluebird boxes scattered around his property. He also hangs two hummingbird feeders, and he energetically recounts the day he saw a pair of male hummingbirds fight over them, even though there was plenty of room for both.

That story is the moment I realize I can’t talk about Dan just in the context of food plots. He may save his greatest passion for deer, but it’s clear that he gets real joy from seeing and helping wildlife in general. He doesn’t hunt rabbits, but he still creates “rabitat” because “I just like seeing them scurry around all over the place.”

Dan’s property didn’t start out as a wildlife nirvana. In fact, part of this property’s allure for his family was that it was pretty miserable land to start with. Land farther down the valley or closer to his home in New Jersey would have been more productive, Dan explains, but that also means it would have cost more. By intentionally buying property with steeper terrain and thinner soil, Dan’s family was able to buy more acreage. Over multiple decades and purchases, they’ve acquired 550 acres.

It’s been a family effort to turn this hardscrabble land into something wildlife love. Dan’s father bought the first parcel in 1959, and the first pond went in on the property three years later. Dan himself started clearing fields for food plots 30 years ago, and the projects have grown ever since.

Dan does a lot of the work on his property himself, though he hires an occasional local contractor to help with certain jobs. Living in New Jersey, he’s only able to get up to his property occasionally. Even with that limited time, though, over the years he’s managed to accomplish incredible work.

That work is built to last, too. Dan’s parents passed the land down to him and his sisters in a trust, and about ten years ago they placed the property into a conservation easement, ensuring the land would never be developed. Dan’s also grooming his nephew Isaac to one day steward the property. Isaac joins us for lunch (venison chili, naturally), and Dan tells me how Isaac is increasingly involved with installing food plots and joining his uncle on hunts. When I ask Isaac whether he’s inherited his uncle’s love of deer, Isaac responds with the quote of the day. “I don’t know if I’d call it love,” he says. “I would say respect.”

That respect for the land is evident on every square inch of this property, and Dan recognizes the need to be deliberate in his actions. “Once you impact an area, there’s a ripple effect,” he tells me. Different wildlife start using that area in different ways, and those changes in turn affect other plants and animals. The impacts can be hard to predict, but it’s obvious riding around Dan’s property that the overall result of his work is positive. And not just for deer, but for turkeys, rabbits, fishers, bluebirds, hummingbirds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and the innumerable other wildlife who share this land.

And what’s Dan’s advice for landowners looking to get started on wildlife projects? Two words: get help. Talk to another landowner who’s done projects like the ones you want to pursue. Hire a consultant to help you figure out the possibilities for your land. Critically, make sure you’re trained on any necessary equipment like chainsaws before you use it.

Finally, don’t be discouraged if you only have a small property. You can still take steps to make that land better for wildlife. “Even something the size of this kitchen can be useful,” he tells me during lunch. When it comes to helping wildlife, it’s all about making the best of the land you have.

image6

Dan is quick to point out that you don’t need 500 acres to benefit wildlife. This area below his house is only a couple acres, yet it sports twin ponds that support fish, reptiles, amphibians, and ducks. If you look closely, you might also spy a bluebird box on the tree on the far left. And at the same time that it’s providing all this wildlife value, the area also supplies an amazing view of the valley below.


Share it!