Providing quality winter deer habitat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

"And not only is the habitat preserved, but access is provided for everybody.” - Bill Scullon, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Among Bill Scullon's many responsibilities is making sure Michigan’s deer herd remains healthy throughout the cold months of the year. And that can be difficult in places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where snow often covers the ground in thick blankets from late fall through early spring.

“What deer are looking for in the winter is areas with conifer shelter,” Scullon says. “That conifer intercepts the snow as it comes down and holds it in the canopy.”

Scullon has worked for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for 27 years and has specialized in deer habitat management since 2001. He is currently the field operations manager for the DNR’s Wildlife Division, where he works with foresters and biologists to manage the deer wintering complexes.

Throughout most of the Upper Peninsula, white-tailed deer migrate every winter to find sheltered areas to survive months of extreme cold and scarce food. When snow accumulates to depths between 12 and 18 inches, they begin moving to their winter homes, known as winter ranges, where they stay until the snow melts, sometimes more than 100 days later.

There are two types of winter deer ranges in the U.P. In an obligate deer range, deer must leave the habitat they occupy during spring, summer, and fall and move as far as 50 miles to find sites spend the winter. In a few southern U.P. counties with milder winters, deer have conditional winter ranges because they only migrate to a winter habitat during the harshest winters.

Bill Scullon. Photo by Doug Coombe.

For deer within an obligate winter range, they must have a reliable winter range habitat to return to every winter. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors approximately 46 deer wintering complexes (DWCs), formerly called “deer yards,” throughout the U.P. DWCs are composed of conifer stands with about 70% canopy closure and tree heights greater than 30 feet. The DWCs along Lake Superior are primarily composed of mixed hemlock and white pine complexes, and the southern DWCs are primarily cedar.

The canopy cover can make the snow depth on the ground much less than areas outside the canopy. Scullon says the lower snow depth reduces energy deer use and the amount of food they need to eat.

“In these complexes, what they're looking for is that cover, but they also need to have that food component,” Scullon says. “A lot of that can be sustained by the lichen and the leaf litter that falls off the branches in winter, but also by the hardwood regeneration that's coming up in those stands as well.”

Deer have suffered significant habitat loss over the last century, and these habitats are difficult to create. Hemlocks and cedars take 300 to 400 years to grow, and deer love to eat them when they are young. Without winter habitats that can support deer, large die-offs can occur during excessive winters.

Deer wintering habitat. Photo by Doug Coombe.

“If we don't have the habitat to sustain them, we’re going to have population swings,” Scullon says. “And culturally speaking, deer are the cornerstone species for the Upper Peninsula.”

Deer hunting is ingrained in the U.P.’s culture and economy. Many schools close on the firearm season's opening day, and Scullon says he has even witnessed residents buried in hunting gear with their hunting rifles. A 2019 study from Michigan State University and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs found that hunting and fishing generate $11.2 billion in economic activity in Michigan each year, including $681 million in the Upper Peninsula.

Because it is impossible to create new habitats quickly, Scullon says conservation and management of the current winter ranges are the best bet to preserve the deer population. He was instrumental in acquiring about 16,000 acres of land within the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula for DWCs over a ten-year period. Much of the land funding came from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF)—a fund generated from oil and gas revenue used to purchase and develop public land that Scullon says is “one of the greatest conservation success stories in North America.”

In the early 2000s, the DNR began identifying land to acquire to preserve as many winter ranges as possible. At first, the Wildlife Division looked to the Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP) fund generated from the sale of deer hunting licenses for funding. The DRIP fund had a balance of approximately $8 million.

Scullon soon realized the MNRTF could be an additional source to procure land for DWCs and began applying for MNRTF grants for land acquisition. The DNR obtained nearly $9.5 million in MNRTF grants during a ten-year period. It used the MNRTF money and about $6 million in DRIP funds to purchase the 16,000 acres.

Bob Garner lives in Cadillac and owns a cabin and recreational hunting land in Iron County along the Wisconsin border, where he hunts deer and birds. Garner has served in several elected and appointed government roles and helped create the predecessor to the MNRTF in 1976. As the former DNR Natural Resources Commissioner, he played a pivotal role in establishing the land acquisition program for DWCs.

“The trust fund has been instrumental in preventing the wholesale destruction of this critical habitat,” Garner says. “And not only is the habitat preserved, but access is provided for everybody.”

The DNR stopped purchasing large tracts of land for DWCs in 2012. Now, the DNR manages the DWCs it owns and works with commercial timber companies and private landowners on managing other lands that deer use as winter range.

“Just as deer have the potential to destroy, by over-browsing, the very plants that keep them alive, we humans sometimes forget that we need to save habitats like those winter deer complexes,” Garner says.

Lyme Timber Company, one of the cooperating timber companies, is experimenting with leaving about half of the volume that it normally would harvest to help preserve deer habitats. Scullon says, “That's an economic hit they're taking, but they recognize that conservation value, and we're not paying them to do that.”

The DNR also works to educate the public about the importance of DWCs and how they should treat deer during the winter.

“A lot of people are concerned about the deer in their backyard, and they want to go out and help them. So, what they do is they go out and cut down a couple of cedar trees to help the deer out,” Scullon says. “That helps them today. But next year, when they come back, they have less habitat.”

Feeding deer stops them from going to their normal winter ranges. If people do not maintain these artificial food sources, they will be stuck miles from their winter range and die. During extreme winters, the DNR has found many dead deer in residents’ backyards.

“We're not trying to overpopulate with deer, and we're not trying to go build more habitat to have more deer,” Scullon says. “But we need to have enough quality habitat to have the deer we already have.”

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The Michigan Environmental Council underwrites the series. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.