BRAINERD – Near this central Minnesota city the other day Bill Marchel hooked a drag to his four-wheeler. This was about midday and the air was pleasantly summerlike. Deer were nowhere to be seen, nor were bears, woodchucks or the score or more birds that nest on Bill’s 70 acres or stop by while migrating in spring or summer.
Ostensibly, Bill was preparing to plant a small food plot with oats. He had been waiting for a shipment of brassicas, a catchall that describes a genus of plants in the mustard family, including turnips and other root plants, as well as oil-producing rapeseed.
“I order the brassicas from down south, and they’re apparently backed up,” Bill said. “That’s OK. I’ll seed it with oats.”
The food plot in question was small, only about an eighth of an acre. Aged bur oaks stretched well into the sky, both within it and along its edges. This may or may not be a good year for those trees to shed acorns. But if it is, wildlife, especially deer, will scour the ground beneath branches for the tasty and nutritious morsels.
Bill has owned his land for 25 years, and his work on it is a testament to the connection many people feel to the earth and the life it supports. Among his accomplishments: He has planted more than 5,000 trees and shrubs, including red and white pines, white cedar, white spruce, chokecherries, black cherry and gray dogwood.
The property is also home to five ponds dug by a contractor Bill hired who accomplished the task with a D8 Caterpillar dozer outfitted with 36-inch-wide tracks.
“I’ve got pretty good wild rice crops in the ponds, which I reseed every couple years or so,” Bill said. “Cattail maintenance is also a big part of having the ponds. I have to keep the cattails down or they’ll take over.”
A widely celebrated wildlife photographer, Bill has surprised even himself with the number of critters his intensive habitat work has attracted.
Ruffed grouse in winter perch on the limbs of crabapple trees, gorging themselves, and spring drum within view of Bill’s house. Bitterns and rails nest on the ponds. Hen wood ducks lay eggs in his man-made boxes, and other waterfowl are regular visitors. Also wolves, pheasants and more than a few curious black bears stop by — and in some cases attempt to drop in.
“A while back, I heard something in my kitchen and dining area at 5 in the morning,” he said. “I checked it out, and a bear had opened my sliding glass door about 5 inches, with one of his paws inside. I scared him off. But an hour later he was back, standing on his hind legs, with his front paws on the glass door. He must have liked the smell of something I cooked.”
When Bill bought the property, it bore little appearance to the wildlife oasis it is today.
Readers who know Bill, either personally or through his countless social media connections, appreciate that he is an archery deer hunter. And it is true, as Bill concedes, that much of the habitat he creates on his property is intended to attract and hold deer.
But believing the singular purpose of his property-enhancement labors is to kill deer misses the mark.
“The management of Minnesota’s deer herd is incorrectly undertaken by the Department of Natural Resources,” he said. “In fact, I think, we kill too many deer, particularly too many young bucks. But I can’t solve that on 70 acres. In 25 years, I’ve only killed three deer on my property. Two were does because I wanted some venison. One was a good buck that was 3½ years old. Like a lot of people, I just enjoy seeing wildlife.”
Deer food plots come in many sizes and shapes and serve various purposes. Often they also are prepared differently, one to another. Some are burned, which clears old foliage while regenerating soil-bound seeds. Others are sprayed with herbicides before being cleared and seeded.
Sometimes the intention is simply to hold deer in an area. Other times the landowner-hunter wants to attract them to within gun or bow range during hunting season.
The small clearing Bill worked on the other day will serve both purposes, assuming the planting takes hold. As farmers know well, too much or too little rain too soon after planting can ruin a crop. Wildlife food plots are particularly vulnerable here, because irrigation isn’t part of the undertaking.
“I sprayed this area to kill the vegetation, and I’ll drag it with my four-wheeler until all of the vegetation, or most of it, is gone,” Bill said. “I also added lime so its pH is conducive to growing, say a pH of 6 or 7. Because of the bur oaks here, the soil is pretty acidic.”
The final step is seeding, which Bill accomplishes on most plots with a hand-held broadcaster.
Rewarding as managing land for wildlife can be, many Minnesotans don’t own land, or don’t own enough to manage it for wildlife.
Others could do more for wild critters that inhabit their property but don’t have the time, money or penchant for the physical labor that is required.
Yet as Carroll Henderson, the retired chief of the DNR nongame wildlife section, has often said, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans both own property and are willing to enhance it for critters but don’t know how to get started.
Here’s one way: Go to the DNR’s website. There you’ll find information on landscaping for wildlife, woodworking for wildlife, pollinator-habitat enhancement and bird feeding, among many other related topics.
“Working with your hands to improve land for wildlife helps all the living things that share my land,” Bill said. “But I think it helps me even more.”