This deer conservation guide is one in a series developed jointly by MU Extension and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The ability of your property and the surrounding landscape to support a white-tailed deer population is largely influenced by the type of vegetation present and the land-use decisions being made about the area. Although white-tailed deer are very adaptable animals, they do have essential requirements of food, cover and water, the first two of which are provided throughout the year by a mixture of plant communities

Woodland and forest are terms that are often used interchangeably but that actually describe distinct natural communities. Woodlands are characterized as having tree coverage with 30 to 80 percent closure in the canopy, or overstory — the uppermost layer in a stand of trees; a sparse midstory; and diverse herbaceous vegetation made up of forbs and grasses at ground level, or understory. Woodlands that are more open with widely spaced trees, areas often called savannas, support a larger percentage of fire-tolerant trees, such as post, burr and black jack oaks. As a result of frequent disturbances, such as prescribed fires, a greater diversity of early successional vegetation exists at the ground layer of open woodland stands. True forests, as opposed to woodlands, typically have a closed tree canopy. Forest stands are made up of multiple layers of trees in the canopy and species of shade-adapted shrubs and saplings in the mid- and understories. They also contain more fire-sensitive trees and shrubs — such as white oak, northern red oak, sugar maple and American hornbeam — than 3 woodlands .

Fortunately, forestry and wildlife management are not mutually exclusive, and practices that are conducted for timber production can also benefit a variety of wildlife species. This publication describes woodland and forest management practices that can benefit white-tailed deer in particular.

Deer and forest succession

Sound timber management strategies that create a mixture of plant successional communities also improve white-tailed deer habitat. Diversity is the key.

Undisturbed, a plant community gradually advances from bare soil to hardwood forest in a process called ecological succession. After a disturbance, such as a timber harvest or a prescribed fire, a plant community initially develops annual and perennial plants, such as grasses, forbs and legumes. These species respond to the increased sunlight and bare soil conditions. Over time shrubs and small trees — such as blackberry, sassafras, sumac and dogwood — begin to grow. Their presence modifies the site conditions and promotes the development of later stages of plant succession that include species such as oaks and hickories. Openings within a forest stand provide excellent sources of browse and forage, and more mature stands of hardwoods produce hard and soft mast, such as acorns and persimmons, respectively, that white-tailed deer use during the fall and winter.

Several management practices can be conducted within forests and woodlands to ensure that cover and food are available throughout the year. Because acorns are an especially important food and energy source for white-tailed deer during the fall and winter, it is important to conduct management practices that favor a diversity of oaks, including both red and white oak species, as well as soft-mast producing trees and shrubs. Practices such as a timber stand improvement (TSI) or a planned commercial harvest can create conditions that favor a diversity of mast-producing trees, promote the regeneration of highly valued oak species, and produce an abundance of high-quality browse as well as shrubby cover beneficial to deer.

Creating and maintaining transition zones between forest or woodland tracts and adjacent fields can also contribute to habitat diversity. A transition zone between two cover types is often called an edge. White-tailed deer and many other wildlife species are attracted to edges because the food and cover they require can be found in close proximity in these areas. These transition zones can be created and enhanced through a variety of management practices, such as timber stand improvement, edge feathering and field border enhancement. Each of these practices adds diversity to the landscape.

Management of woodlands and forests for deer

Harvesting, thinning, creating woodland openings, conducting a prescribed fire, and forest regeneration activities alter the quantity and quality of deer forage and cover. Any management activity that opens the tree canopy and allows more sunlight to reach ground level will stimulate the growth of herbaceous and shrubby plants, increasing the amount of forage. Management activities that encourage a diversity of mast-producing trees, such as combinations of red and white oaks, are also beneficial. Each of these goals can be accomplished by using a silvicultural system, that is, a process of manipulating the forest stand, that results in either an even-aged or uneven-aged stand of trees on the area.

Even-aged management systems

Even-aged management is a preferred method for establishing shade-intolerant trees species such as red and white oaks and shortleaf pine. This management system results in the regeneration of a new stand of trees that are all about the same age, hence the term even-aged.  Three harvest systems that result in an even-aged stand are clearcuts, seed-tree cuts and shelterwood cuts.


Clearcutting is the removal of all trees from a tract in a single harvest operation to regenerate the stand (Figure 4a). The new stand of trees develops from either stump sprouts or seedlings that have been waiting in the understory for their chance to grow (Figure 4b). Depending on the circumstances and surrounding landscape, clearcuts can improve deer habitat in several ways:

• Regenerating important oak trees species that need full sunlight for seed germination and development

• Promoting early successional vegetation for five to seven years after harvest

• Creating a mixture of forest conditions within an area, encouraging a diversity of habitats beneficial for deer