Timber Stand Improvement for Wildlife

Neil Clarridge lets the chainsaw fly on a sweet gum. Landowners should focus on favoring up to a maximum of 70 to 80 available crop trees to the acre. Photo by Stephanie Clarridge

By Neil Clarridge for Whitetail Times

The buck responded with rage to clashing antlers. He ran up the hollow looking for a fight. An impenetrable thicket of native vegetation growing through downed Virginia pines kept the buck at bay until a subtle grunt redirected his movements.

The eight-pointer was licking his nose as he walked around the large brush pile. There was belligerence in his body posture as he prowled through the weeds bordering the gas line.

The author of this ruse raised his Knight muzzleloader before the buck came into sight. A slight adjustment put the crosshairs behind the shoulder, and then smoke filled the air between the two contenders. The buck faltered as he ran down the gas line. He ran out of steam before he ran out of sight, and then all was still.
He wasn’t the largest buck in the area, but he was the most aggressive. The brawler’s rack was busted to pieces. A huge buck stepped from the thicket as the hunter drug his prize past on his way back to camp. The huge buck was probably relieved to see the local bully leaving the area for good. An empty muzzleloader added to the huge buck’s good fortune. This scenario was orchestrated the previous year while conducting timber stand improvement (TSI) on the land.

The Benefits of TSI

Deer hunters can improve habitat with a chainsaw, hand saw, and loppers. The thicket that stopped the buck came about as a TSI project. A stand of mixed pines straddled the gas line that intersects a corner of the property. Every Virginia pine was summarily executed while the shortleaf and loblolly pines were spared.

The remaining pines are thriving because they no longer have to compete with the Virginia pines for sunlight, water, nutrients, and root space. In fact, the decomposing pines are providing the remaining trees with nutrients. The gas line was planted in brassica and clover after lime was applied to the soil. It is a linear food plot running right through the middle of the thicket.

Ground cover exploded when sunlight reached the forest floor. The thicket provides security cover, and the food plot provides forage. The east side of the thicket borders an oak forest, while the west side borders a loblolly pine plantation. Instead of letting the deer dictate where we meet, TSI creates conditions for arranging a meeting on the hunter’s terms.

Working with a chainsaw is efficient, but safety is of paramount importance. It’s important to wear safety equipment when working with a chainsaw. A safety helmet with a face shield and earmuffs, safety chaps, thick leather boots, and gloves are a minimum cadre of equipment.

When working with a chainsaw safety equipment is the most important part of this project. Our author is pictured with his safety equipment beside a girdled Virginia pine tree. Photo by Stephanie Clarridge

Dave Webb of Gretna, Virginia, put it succinctly when he said, “You can buy safety equipment before you get hurt, or after an injury; I recommend that you get it before you get hurt.” Then he rolled up his pant leg to show scars from an accident that almost lopped off his lower leg.

Felling trees with a chainsaw is dangerous work. Two tragic deaths in Pittsylvania County came as a result of tree felling. Robert Pollock, an experienced chainsaw operator, was killed while felling a tree on his farm when part of the tree fell on him. Wallace Teague Sr. died when he was struck by a falling tree limb. Mr. Teague and Mr. Pollack both fell victim to widow makers.

A widow maker is a detached or broken limb or tree top that can become dislodged during tree felling. Widow makers are responsible for 11% of all fatal chainsaw accidents. A large limb falling 40 feet to the ground can cause severe injury or death. With eyes riveted on the cut and ears beset with the buzz of the chainsaw, saw operators rarely receive warning that a widow maker is on its way.

Chainsaw work is best done with a partner. The partner can function as a spotter who can warn the chainsaw operator of impending danger. W. Dave Webb is part of a chainsaw crew for the organization formerly known as the Boy Scouts of America. The crew works in tandem wearing safety equipment including bib overalls. As one member works on the tree his lookout watches the canopy for hazards. If danger is spotted, the spotter uses the back of the overalls as a handle to direct his partner away from danger.

Improving Wildlife Habitat

Timber stand improvement can improve the timber stand while improving wildlife habitat at the same time. We use three techniques to help make the forest attractive to wildlife while helping nature produce trees for timber production: eradicating invasive species, removing cull trees, and releasing crop trees.

Eradicating invasive species is an easy call because many invasive trees have no redeeming qualities. The tree of heaven is a foul-smelling invasive that colonized several areas on the edge of a large field.

Eradication is difficult because cutting a tree of heaven stimulates the root system to send new sprouts up off the stump.

Getting rid of the tree of heaven requires commitment. Cut the tree down during late summer and apply a coat of undiluted (41% is acceptable) glyphosate using a paint brush. Always wear gloves, goggles, long sleeves, long pants, and a disposable dust mask when handling and applying glyphosate herbicide. The glyphosate should be applied within five minutes of cutting the tree because the stump will quickly produce a protective scab. Return in a couple weeks to make sure that the treatment worked. If there is any doubt, cut a slice off the top of the stump and apply another coat of glyphosate.

Virginia pines and sweet gum trees are treated like invasive species because they invade space and compete with desirable trees. Sweet gums require a dose of glyphosate to kill them to the roots. Virginia pines will not sprout from the stump and need only be cut. Large trees can be dangerous to fell.

A section of a Pittsylvania County property contained a canopy of Virginia pines with an oak, poplar, and hickory understory. Girdling the Virginia pines killed all of them. Over the next couple years, they lost their needles, lost their limbs, and eventually fell to the ground. It’s best not to hunt near girdled trees because it’s hard to predict when and where they will fall.

The diminished weight of the decaying trees and the strength of the invigorated understory hardwoods kept hardwood losses minimal. The sunlight stimulated understory hardwoods and allowed other seeds to germinate. The resulting thickening effect created cover, produced edge, and brought diversity to this section of the forest.

Gas line openings that run through mature timber stands provide the sunlight that helps create habitat enhancement. The buck that our author describes in the story that he rattled in prowled through the weeds that bordered this gas line. Photo by the author

Another technique used in TSI is cull tree removal. Cull tree removal kills large, undesirable trees by girdling or felling them. Trees that are not commercially valuable or ecologically valuable are removed in order to improve a stand of trees. Ash, cedar, locust, and black gum trees are commonly culled regardless of the size of the tree.

When five poplars spring from a single stump, the straightest, healthiest tree whose trunk goes all the way to the ground is selected, and all the ancillary trees are culled. It’s the same with oak trees. The straightest, healthiest trunk stands while the others fall. When the competing trunks are culled, the lone survivor will have less competition, and it will benefit from an established root system that will pour all of its resources into one tree.

Crop tree release (CTR) differs from the first two strategies because it involves identifying desirable trees and removing unwanted competition from their midst. CTR is a technique intended to provide increased growing space for crop trees through the removal of crown competition from adjacent trees. White oak, red oak, yellow poplar, and black walnut are the primary crop tree species in our area. The key to effective CTR is to focus on identifying desirable trees to favor, not the undesirable trees to eliminate.

In most cases almost all the economic value in hardwood stands is found in a small number of trees per acre. Land owners should focus on favoring all of the available crop trees, up to a maximum of 70 to 80 trees per acre. It is important to recognize that the number of crop trees declines with stand age. Each year a few potential crop trees succumb to adjacent competitors. In the absence of CTR, stands older than 25 years often have less than 40 crop trees per acre.

Brush Piles

Within the target species, look for straight trees with branch-free trunks, no low forks, no cankers, good attachment to stumps, good vigor, and a healthy crown. When cutting competitors down, all the refuse can be left where it falls, or it can be used to create brush piles. Brush piles function as mini-thickets where game can hide from predators. Small game, birds, and other animals use brush piles to hide from predators. Brush piles also act as screens that help wary game hide from hunters.

Years ago, while hunting with Carl McCracken in Haywood County, North Carolina, we sat on one side of the mountain watching four deer feed on a hillside across the hollow. The deer sensed danger long before danger appeared. Eventually, two hunters stalked through the area. Instead of bolting away from the perceived threat, the deer simply sidestepped the men using multiflora rose bushes as cover to screen themselves from the stalkers. At one point the hunter was five yards from a doe hiding from him. The two hunters had no clue that there were any deer in the area.

Creating brush piles for wildlife cover is a big part of the TSI project. The shooting house ground blind overlooking the food plot is a perfect set-up for the upcoming season. Photo by the author

Brush piles on one section of Bearskin Bend Farm came about because leaving discarded hardwoods where they fell obstructed an amorous gobbler’s way to a concealed caller. The hardwood forest between a roosting area and a chufa patch used to function as a travel corridor. A timber stand improvement project temporarily ruined the situation because the saw operator allowed discarded timber to lie where it fell.

The sounds of the Lynch Foolproof turkey call had the gobbler captivated, but he would not come. The turkey paced back and forth gobbling his head off, but still he would not come. The gobbler lost interest in the calls and searched for love in greener pastures. The hunter looked through the forest in frustration until he realized that he could easily remedy the situation by cleaning up clutter.

Two weeks later the same scenario played out with different results. The Foolproof sang its siren song, and the gobbler responded with gusto. He flew off the roost, walked through the woods, strutted past a brush pile, and entered the chufa patch in full strut. It was simply a matter of seeing the forest from the trees.


Neil Clarridge is a school counselor at Chatham High School in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Clarridge is a lifetime deer, turkey and bear hunter. He takes his hunting very seriously and hand-loads his own ammo. Neil is a landowner with holdings in Virginia and North Carolina, who practices Quality Deer Management on all of his properties. Readers can reach the author via email at big_kahuna270@yahoo.com.      


©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • March 3, 2022