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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 10, 2011

When snow is deep and deer can’t eat, cutting browse helps them survive

Cutting boughs so that deer may browse is a way to help sustain them in winter when snow is deep.

Jack Milner of the Whitetail Association writes in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week that coyotes are “having a feast with our snow condition” and urges, “Don’t let this be another 2002-03 winter, which killed most fawns and bucks. Our herd has never come back where it should be.”

Rick Georgeson, spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, says that cut browse is the only method approved for feeding deer.

“Although it may appear to be a simple act, feeding deer in the winter can be an especially difficult endeavor to do correctly,” says the DEC on its website. “Deer are ruminants, similar to cows, and have complex digestive processes. They have multi-chambered stomachs and rely upon micro-organisms, instead of digestive juices to break down food so that nutrients can be absorbed. The types and concentrations of the micro-organisms are specific for various food types. What might work well to digest woody browse will not digest supplemental foods such as corn or other grains.”

Food from browse cutting provides nourishment with no delay in receiving energy from the food. With recent concerns over the spread of chronic wasting disease, browse cutting is even more acceptable because the risks normally associated with artificial foods and high deer concentrations are greatly reduced, says the DEC. Also browse cutting has a long-term effect of improving winter habitat for deer.

Browse cutting can be done as part of firewood cutting, and, when spread out over a large area, it minimizes food competition between larger and smaller deer.

The DEC also points out, however, that browse cutting cannot be done on most public lands, and landowner permission must be obtained on private land.

All hardwood firewood, except beech, will provide valuable browse, especially if the limbs are cut to lie no more than three feet off the ground, says the DEC. Generally, the tops and higher branches have higher value as deer food than the lateral branches.

Cutting done strictly for deer, not firewood, should be confined to trees and shrubs with stems one to three inches in diameter. The stem should be cut about two-thirds of the way and then pushed over, says the DEC. This will allow the cut tree to continue to be nourished by the roots and enhance sprout growth of the top and stump. “Hinging,” as this is commonly called, can be done quietly, with a small handsaw, without disturbing deer in the adjoining areas.

Browse cutting is most valuable to deer when snow is so deep that they have trouble getting around. The DEC says that deer mobility can be determined by observing trailing and track patterns. When individual deer tracks outnumber deer trails and group tracks, deer are generally able to forage satisfactorily. Conversely, when deer trails and group tracks equal or outnumber individual tracks, a deer’s foraging range is restricted and they are probably unable to secure adequate nourishment.

—     Melissa Hale-Spencer

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