Patterson waters in a Bartlett Pear on the edge of a food plot © Connor Freund
BUILDING RANCHLAND GAME HABITAT BY JOEL JOHNSON
Before permits are signed and bows are strung, trophy bucks need prize-worthy pasture. In a modern ecosystem that often includes more roads and subdivisions than native forbs, that pasture doesn’t come naturally. In fact, altering natural environments to improve herd life is an ancient practice. For thousands of years, indigenous people modified the North American landscape to encourage healthy game populations. Typically this meant initiating controlled burns to maintain open prairies—native grasslands being a key source of forage for animals, and an opportune environment for hunters. In January of 2018, long-time hunting guides Kent Giffin and Kyle Windquist formed Habitat Commanders, a land management consulting agency, to apply ancient principles to modern properties. For Kyle Windquist, habitat design starts and ends with the mind of the animal. When thinking about designing a property to support
game animals you’ve got to start by thinking, “what are you looking for as a person” and then transition to “what am I looking for as a big buck?” Windquist explains. “I want somewhere that I feel safe. I want somewhere that has plenty of food to eat. I want somewhere that has great water that’s right there for me. If you give them safety, water, and food, why are they going to leave?” At the start of each project, Windquist and Giffin walk the landscape with their clients, taking inventory of resources and limitations, and cross-referencing client goals with game animal needs. In general, the equation is simple: create a property capable of supporting a large herd, growing big bucks, and providing maximum hunter access with minimal herd disturbance. More often than not, the first barrier to that goal is a uniform tree canopy that has choked out a more diverse understory. This uniformity can be a major problem for deer development. 20
Deer have much smaller rumens than cattle, which means they have to be highly selective in what they eat. Instead of browsing a high quantity of low-quality forage, they select the most nutritious parts of a vast array of plants. A study on the “Diets of Desert Mule Deer” conducted by the University of Arizona documented 237 different species of browse and forbs.
To correct this imbalance, Giffin and Windquist thin the canopy, a disturbance that provides needed sunlight for understory trees and brush. The change is palpable.