Chainsaw Therapy Make Wooded Habitat Work for You

By Scott Bestul

For $500, a pair of earmuffs and safety glasses, you can make your whitetail property exponentially better. The money is for a chainsaw, and the muffs and glasses represent the safety gear you’ll need. Throw in $20 for gas and a little sweat equity, and your deer woods can change from OK to kick-butt in a year. Even better, your initial work — right — will provide dividends for years to come, with virtually no follow-up maintenance.

Don’t get me wrong: I know food plots are important. I love 'em as much as the next guy and spend more time as a gentleman farmer than I probably should. But how you manage the wooded habitat on your property is equally critical. Deer bed, feed and seek security in young-growth timber, and one of the best ways to create or maintain that young growth is with a chainsaw. The past three years, I’ve been helping on timber stand improvement projects with neighbors, friends and hunting buddies, and that work has convinced me of something I should have learned long, long ago. As a high-school boy, I read Aldo Leopold’s classic “A Sand County Almanac.” The book is a wonderful read, and in it Leopold— widely acknowledged as the father of game management—advised that the two most important tools for the deer manager are “the rifle and the axe.” The firearm explains itself, but when Leopold mentioned the axe, he was stressing the importance of creating and maintaining the young-growth timber on which whitetails depend. Chainsaws are, naturally, faster, and I bet if Leopold were still alive, he’d recommend their use.

Getting Started

Before you fire up that Stihl or Husqvarna, you need to have something of a plan. This is obvious to people like me; folks who have a healthy fear of a power tool that can kill you, destroy valuable timber and do long-term damage to the very deer habitat you’re hoping to improve. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this is not obvious in the least to some of our whitetail-loving brethren. Tell them they need to cut trees, and they’re making sawdust before your words echo from the timberline. So let’s start with some precautions. First, safety must stand above all else. Many men feel a genetic entitlement to the use of power tools. But a chainsaw is not a cordless drill. My good friend and closest neighbor nearly cut his leg off and bled to death in a chainsaw incident many years ago. Dave is no weekend warrior, but a farmer who works with big, powerful machinery many times a day. He survived only because he was young, tough and very lucky (a Medivac chopper reached him in time, and this was in the pre-cellphone era). If you’ve never run a power saw, learn basic safety rules first. They’re easy to find on the internet, as well as in the handy owner’s manual that comes with each saw. Better yet, have a pro teach you the ins and outs of running one. Then, purchase—and wear— protective gear; helmet, goggles or safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves and chaps. If I sound like your grandma here, consider this: Another of my close friends is a full-time logger, a man who has felled hundreds of thousands of trees in a long career. Tom won’t even touch the start button on a saw without being fully covered in the safety gear above. Tom’s wife is an occupational therapist, and she treats all the macho loggers who think they don’t need the stuff. Then she helps them find a second career. Second, if your property has potentially valuable timber, you’d be wise to consult with a forester before going crazy with a saw. Most of the projects we’ll discuss here involve dropping trees that regenerate quickly on their own, or the removal of undesirable species (or individual trees) to better habitat. If you’re not familiar with the tree species in your area, there’s no quicker way than to have a pro walk your woods and teach you. In my region, state foresters will often visit a property for free or a nominal fee. But paying a consultant’s fee can be worth it; he can assess your timber, listen to your goals and help create a long-term plan. This extra step will not only result in your immediate dream of improving deer habitat, but also a blueprint that will make money for you (and future generations) as you harvest marketable timber.

Get to Work!

Despite these warnings, Timber Stand Improvement needn’t be dangerous. Nor is it rocket science. With safety gear and a basic knowledge of tree species and whitetail habitat needs, even a chainsaw newbie (like me) can have a lot of fun and make great strides in improving deer habitat. Here are four projects to get you started.

Clear a Bedroom: Almost any property will produce better hunting if it contains high-quality bedding cover. In my area, unfortunately, that is the one component most frequently missing. Make no mistake; whitetails will bed almost anywhere. But they prefer to bed in dense, second-growth cover that gives them maximum seclusion. In the oak-hickory forests that dominate my local landscape, second growth timber is tough to find, mainly because oaks are slow-growing trees that aren’t logged very often. So here’s what we’ve learned. We seek out small stands of aspen (frequently called popple) trees and clear-cut them. Aspen trees regenerate vigorously in the aftermath of a clearcut, primarily by sucker-sprouting (sending saplings up from the root systems of existing trees). Saplings will also sprout from seeds dropped by mature trees. These seeds will lie dormant in the soil until exposed to the ample sunlight created by a clear-cut. Since most aspen stands are relatively small (from ¼-acre to 5 acres) in this area, two men with saws can clearcut a popple stand in a weekend of work. I use the term clear-cut literally but with exceptions. Species like aspen regenerate best when exposed to sunlight and minus the competition from other trees. So we take down every tree (including brush species) unless it is unique for the area, has some market value or is a mast producer. I showed my young daughter the results of a just-completed clear-cut recently and her jaw dropped at the apparent devastation. This fall, I’ll walk her back to that same area and show her aspen whips that are 6 to 8 feet tall and being eaten by deer. And in two years, Brooke will see young, healthy trees reaching for sunlight in the same spot. Better yet, deer will use the cut to bed, feed and escape hunting pressure.

Make a hinge: Not all forests contain species like aspen that respond so perfectly to clear-cutting. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create habitat with a chainsaw. Hinge-cutting is simpler than clear-cutting, because all you do is cut the tree at a spot about 4 to 5 feet above the ground, and then saw just far enough through the tree that it tips over. And then you leave it. The hinge-cut tree not only creates a bedding-cover tunnel near its trunk, but the terminal crown and branches will continue to grow for a time (sometimes several seasons), creating a browse source. Even better, hinge-cut areas allow sunlight to reach young trees and shrubs and encourage their growth. Like a clear-cut, hinge-cutting helps you create a bed and breakfast that can last many years and can achieve similar results. I helped a neighbor with a hinge-cut three years ago, and the one-acre spot has become a whitetail haven, especially during the pressure of the firearms season. However, bucks started using the area only months after our saws went silent. Hinge-cutting works best where low-value or particularly abundant tree species—in my area, trees such as box elder, ironwood, elm, young maples and even hickory—grow in relatively small patches close to more valuable timber or mast-producing trees. Clear-cutting sometimes isn’t a viable option, but small hinge-cutting projects can create bedding areas in an otherwise mature forest.

Please release me: Chainsaws are often thought of as instruments of destruction, but release-cuts flop such notions on their head. If you know the timber on your property well, you’ve likely identified species — if not individual trees — that you want to grow strong, healthy and propagate more of their kind. Release cuts encourage these primo trees by eliminating competition for food, water and sunlight. Let’s start with a simple example. White oaks are as valuable in my region as they are anywhere else. To encourage young white oaks to grow, we’ve often eliminated competitive trees growing near them that have little or no timber value. Elm, basswood, ironwood and box elder (among others) are often found growing in stands of young white oak, and felling trees from these species has helped us give the oaks a boost. Sometimes, a small clump of white oaks grow in close proximity to each other, and a release-cut can eliminate the poorer candidates, allowing the sapling with the most potential to do its thing. However, unless you’ve had some experience, it’s usually best to consult with a professional forester (see note above) to help you decide which oaks should go or stay. Soft-mast species can also benefit from a release-cut, and individual trees might also be improved by pruning. Apple trees — an excellent whitetail food — are a perfect example. I recently drove through southern Wisconsin, one of the Midwest’s largest orchard regions, and was amazed at how aggressively these trees had been pruned during winter. I knew that come fall, these trees would look well-rounded and fully leaved, and pump out bushels of prime fruit. But their offseason haircuts made them look like pathetic stumps. Again, a pro could give you a short course on apple pruning, but there are also many easy-to-read guides at the library and on-line.

Steer your deer: Chainsaws are also excellent tools for creating funnels in and around stand sites. By felling and moving poor-quality trees and brush, you can steer deer toward areas that will offer you the best shot, avoid winding you or both. Here are two examples. Small food plots — often called harvest or kill plots — are a perfect example. Whitetails adore these small, secluded food sources, but deer quickly develop the annoying habit of establishing entry trails from multiple directions, and then entering the food plot only when they have the wind at their advantage. Of course, this is usually the dead wrong wind for you. The simple remedy is to pile stems, brush and other debris across all but a few select trails, blocking any whitetail on-ramps you don’t want them traveling. I’ve talked to other hunters who have used much the same technique in the timber, dropping trees and brush to form a barrier. Gaps in the barrier are left near prime stand locations, or the barrier is left intact, forcing deer to do an end-around and wind up in bow or gun range from a good stand site.


This is just a sample of the work that can be accomplished with some chainsaw time. I’ve found these projects to be satisfying and successful, and they create positive changes in habitat that will last for years. Even better, the best time to complete chainsaw projects is in that late winter/early spring period — before trees start the year’s re-growth — and they create one more excuse to be in the deer woods.