As the Quality Deer Management philosophy becomes further anchored as the dominant mindset among whitetail hunters, achieving greater numbers of mature bucks is not the hurdle it once was. Instead, there’s another hurdle: Killing them. Answering that challenge is the “sanctuary,” a landscape feature that has recently become a familiar part of conversations about hunting tactics, property set-up, and small-acreage management.
There are two kinds of sanctuaries used by mature bucks. The most common is the kind hunters create unknowingly. They are the places we don’t like to go because they are inconvenient, difficult to get into, or because we perceive some other place – like a food plot or a stand where we had success in the past – is a better place to hunt. Bucks use these sanctuaries to avoid us, but because we don’t know they do, we can’t capitalize.
The second kind of sanctuary is one hunters actively designate. Bucks use these sanctuaries to avoid us, but because we know they do, we can capitalize. We can use designated sanctuaries to shelter immature bucks we don’t want to harvest but someone else might; to encourage these bucks to spend more time on our hunting land throughout their lives; to encourage mature bucks to use our land when regional hunting pressure intensifies; and to allow us to predict the movements of mature bucks so we can kill them.
Designing and using sanctuaries is a relatively new and evolving art in deer habitat management. Questions abound, and opinions vary. I recently spoke with several recognized experts in deer behavior and land management to nail down the best available guidance on successful sanctuaries.
Research: Defining a Sanctuary
The concept of actively creating and managing sanctuaries has only recently emerged into the mainstream of hunting thought. Little if any scientific research has been aimed at the topic, but a few studies have indirectly provided answers to some of our questions. Among those are studies of adult bucks wearing GPS tracking collars at DuPont’s Chesapeake Farms research facility in Maryland. Data from GPS collars have allowed researchers to illuminate the home ranges of adult bucks – and the “core areas” within those home ranges – on a hunted property with mixed woodland and agriculture.
“We saw these core areas show up in places that we basically don’t hunt,” said Dr. Mark Conner.
Mark described two sites in particular that served as the core areas for several bucks wearing collars. “One is a sanctuary because it is impenetrable to humans,” he said. “Very dense greenbriar and other thorny vegetation. The only way you can get into it is to find a deer trail and get on your hands and knees and go in there.”
The other area, Mark said, is a designated waterfowl sanctuary surrounding a pond. Human activity is restricted to avoid disturbing geese and ducks using the pond, and the restricted area – about 25 acres in size – includes woodlands, fields and pockets of native warm-season grasses.
“It’s almost the opposite of the other sanctuary. It’s very open,” Mark said. “But like the other sanctuary, there is no human disturbance. These two areas were core areas for multiple bucks, and by our definition of core area, the bucks spent 50 percent of their time in those areas.”
Given the differences in the two sites, Mark doesn’t believe habitat density defines a sanctuary.
“It doesn’t have to be a place a hunter can’t go,” he said. “It just has to be a place a hunter doesn’t go. Human presence defines the sanctuary, not the cover type.”
Defining the Goal
All of the experts I spoke with agreed with Mark: absence of human activity defines a sanctuary, and mature bucks end up using those areas as a result.
“Whether sanctuaries attract bucks to the area because it is more secure for them, or bucks that frequent those areas just get older because they aren’t hunted that hard, we aren’t sure,” said Dr. Karl Miller at the University of Georgia. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. We know mature bucks inhabit those areas.”
With this knowledge in hand, deer managers can begin to incorporate sanctuaries into their habitat and hunting layout. But the details can be difficult to disentangle. What size? How many? Where should they be located? Answering these questions in the appropriate order can be difficult, but it helps to first define the goal for sanctuaries. In the context of this article, our goal is to create hunting opportunities for mature bucks. While sanctuaries may have other benefits, such as protecting and attracting young bucks or creating fawning cover, all of these benefits can be achieved as by-products of creating effective hunting strategies.
Sanctuary Size: A Function of Seclusion
Let’s start by trying to set some guidelines for size. Coming up with the perfect minimum or maximum size for an effective sanctuary that works in every corner of the whitetail’s range is impractical, because habitat, landforms, and land use practices vary. However, “seclusion” can be measured no matter where you hunt.
“It’s not the size that’s as important as the amount of seclusion the sanctuary provides,” said Karl. “One acre by a road? You don’t have a sanctuary. As a minimum, 20 acres comes to mind, but then your presence on the border of that 20 acres is functionally making that a smaller sanctuary.”
Mark Conner also said that seclusion and density play into optimal size. “If you did get near a deer that was laying down in the sanctuary, and it could get up and be comfortable enough to lay down again within that same sanctuary, I think that’s a good thing,” he said. As an example, he cited the waterfowl sanctuary at Chesapeake Farms, which is about 25 acres in size. Because it is a relatively open patchwork of fields and woods, deer can be bumped completely out of the sanctuary by vehicles or hunters passing near. “But if you had 25 acres of impenetrable cover, I don’t think you could push them out of there,” he said.
In other words, a small patch of dense cover may provide more effective sanctuary than a larger patch of more open cover.
As for hunting strategy – our ultimate goal – size is a critical variable. Joe Lacefield is a private lands wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, and he regularly advises small-property managers to use sanctuaries to help attract and hold mature bucks. He believes that even half an acre can provide sanctuary from hunting pressure, and mature bucks will use that space, but effectively hunting around a sanctuary this small is difficult because hunters are more easily detected.
“But a sanctuary can be too large, too,” Joe said. “If you had a sanctuary that was so large it had all the components a deer needs, including food, it would be more difficult to harvest that animal. The idea is to hunt the travel patterns between the sanctuary and the other resources.”
Wildlife consultant Bryan Kinkel of Tennessee agrees with Joe. “Smaller sanctuaries are much easier to hunt, because they have fewer entrance and exit routes,” Bryan said. “You can predict the travel routes much easier. So there’s no such thing as ‘too big’ for the deer, but a sanctuary can be too big for effective hunting. For hunting purposes, I think over 10 acres is getting too large.”
More Is Better
Some hunters wonder whether competition for limited sanctuary cover is a social issue for deer. If sanctuary cover is not abundant, will dominant bucks monopolize a good sanctuary and keep other bucks out? Could a group of does antagonize bucks in spring and summer, when antlers are growing, and run them out of quality cover?
While Mark Conner said he hasn’t studied this aspect in particular, he said there was substantial overlap in the core areas of individual bucks being tracked at Chesapeake Farms during hunting season. Referring specifically to the two sanctuaries on Chesapeake Farms, he said it was almost certain that bucks were using the same sanctuary at the same time.
As for competition from does, Karl Miller said, “We see some segregation of the sexes during the fawning period. The does generally, based on the research, take some of the better quality habitat for fawning. But I don’t think it’s a concern if bucks are being displaced during fawning season. And if the does are in there during the rut, that would be even more reason for the bucks to be there too.”
The advantage of multiple sanctuaries seems to be more clear when it comes to hunting strategy. For some hunters, property size is too small to allow for multiple sanctuaries, but in general, more is better. More sanctuaries allow a hunter to distribute hunting pressure more evenly across a property, and multiple set-ups will allow for hunting options no matter the wind direction.
“I personally prefer to see sanctuaries scattered across a property,” said Bryan Kinkel. “I prefer more, smaller sanctuaries than one big sanctuary. First, I have noticed that most mature bucks are killed just outside these areas. The more sanctuaries you have, the more of these highly productive edges you have to hunt. Second, multiple sanctuaries allow deer to move across a property in a hopscotch pattern, jumping from sanctuary to sanctuary. This gives you more travel patterns, more gaps, more weak places in their movements, and that gives you more hunting opportunities.”
And, Bryan added, if social friction between mature bucks is a factor at all, multiple sanctuaries may allow more mature bucks to spend more time on the same property. “Looking at our data, we just pick up more mature bucks, and more bucks total, on the properties where more sanctuaries are available, scattered across the landscape,” said Bryan.
As a reality check, remember that no matter the number or size of protected sanctuaries you offer, not every mature buck in the area will gravitate toward your property.
“Different bucks have different personalities,” said Karl Miller. “Some tend to be ‘home boys,’ and some tend to roam over wide areas. A sanctuary isn’t going to protect those bucks that roam a lot, particularly if they roam a lot during the daytime. However, bucks that have a smaller home range can spend a good portion of their time in these sanctuaries.”
Start With The Heart
While options may be limited on any given property depending on acreage and landscape features, there is general agreement that the first sanctuary you establish should be located toward the heart of the property. Subsequent additions should also be orbiting the center of the property and avoiding boundary lines.
Don Higgins, a freelance writer and habitat consultant from Illinois and author of the book Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World, believes the center of a property is the place to start. This helps pull deer farther into the property when the pressure is on, and there are other advantages.
“When the sanctuary is in the middle, you can hunt all sides of it,” Don said. “If it’s on or near a property boundary, you lose access to some of the hunting opportunities that are created, and you may give them to your neighbor. Also, a neighbor can ruin the sanctuary by hunting or walking by with the wrong wind and letting their scent blow in there.”
The exception, as Joe Lacefield pointed out, is in neighborhoods with cooperative relationships or even a formal QDM Cooperatives established. “You and I can have a cooperative sanctuary,” Joe said. “We designate an area on a common boundary, and we both get a sanctuary to hunt. We’d have to be pretty good friends to pull that off, but it can be done.”
Beyond these considerations, sanctuaries should be placed in areas that make sense for existing features like food plots, roads and orchards. Predominant wind direction should also be considered to ensure logical stand sites. Placing sanctuaries near existing travel corridors will ensure use.
Bryan Kinkel also likes to place sanctuaries to take advantage of habitat features that encourage deer travel. “When habitat edges converge with a sanctuary, deer, especially bucks, will want to follow these edge lines,” he said. “Edges, ridges, any kind of terrain feature that concentrates deer movement will be used as an entrance or exit to the sanctuary.”
As a real-world example, Bryan described a pair of sanctuaries on opposite flanks of a long, narrow ridge. “The closest point where they almost touch is right in a saddle in that ridge,” he said. “The deer go between the two sanctuaries through the saddle. Multiple mature bucks have been shot in that saddle.”
Of course, sanctuaries don’t always have to be created. Existing natural sanctuaries should figure into your strategy. “The farm I hunt has a natural sanctuary that is a steep river bluff,” said Joe. “There’s roughly 20 acres that no one goes in. By hunting just off that bluff and rattling, I’ve taken some pretty nice deer in multiple years. But it seems they really only go to that sanctuary area after there’s been quite a bit of pressure, after Kentucky’s youth and muzzleloader seasons when scouting for gun season has started.”
By now, the general idea for hunting sanctuaries is apparent: Hunt travel routes between a sanctuary and other resources, like food plots. But there are some finer points for discussion.
“I haven’t studied all the data to answer this question, but my casual observation is that hunting as close to the sanctuary as you can without disturbing the deer is probably one of your best bets for killing a mature buck,” said Mark Conner. “I say that because I did look at some deer movements on individual days, and I noticed a lot of times those bucks were not leaving their core areas until near the end of shooting light. If you are going to see him during daylight, you need to use your hunting skills to the maximum. Play the wind. Think about how you are getting to your stand. Is my scent going to blow into the sanctuary when I go by there? As I go to my stand, am I going to walk by other deer in a field and push them into the sanctuary?”
Joe Lacefield agrees that hunting as close to the sanctuary as you can is important, but he warned of the danger of hunting the very edge. “When you hunt the very edge, it is so easy for your scent to penetrate that cover, even if the wind is mostly blowing the right direction,” he said. “If your scent is going in there, you might as well be walking through it. Really, you want to catch them after they’ve come out and are heading to a food plot or to work a scrape or some other destination.”
Getting bucks to emerge from sanctuaries is why Don Higgins does not put food plots or fruit trees inside sanctuaries. “I make sure the food sources are outside the sanctuary,” he said. “If the pressure is too significant, or your hunting patterns are too predictable, a buck can just stay in there until dark and then come out and feed. But if you manage the property right, he can leave the sanctuary, travel a short distance to feed, and still be on your hunting land. If you picked a good location, and there are distinct funnels leading in and out of the sanctuary, you know exactly where to hang your stand.”
Maintaining and Improving Sanctuaries
Some sanctuaries are naturally occurring, like Joe Lacefield’s river bluff, or the greenbriar thicket at Chesapeake Farms. But if you create new sanctuaries, or enhance existing ones, there are a few ideas that might help. In general, more dense cover makes a better sanctuary, if for no other reason than it is more difficult to disturb deer with your own activities and sounds outside the sanctuary.
“Timber stand improvement (TSI) is a great way to start or maintain a sanctuary,” said Joe. “Timber harvest or TSI can increase the stem densities and forage that’s available within a sanctuary, giving you a really dense, diverse understory.”
TSI can include thinning with commercial timber harvest, “hinge cuts” implemented with a chainsaw, or simply “daylighting” by cutting down less valuable trees or girdling them and leaving them standing. Joe said that TSI maintenance to keep a sanctuary in an early successional stage is the only reason he enters sanctuaries, and he does this in the off-season in late spring.
For extra screening, Don Higgins plants conifers along the perimeters of his sanctuaries. “That makes it much easier for me to move around on the perimeter without being spotted by deer inside,” he said. “I like to plant conifers like white pine, Norway spruce, and red cedar. I also like oak species that hold their leaves in the winter, like shingle oak or pin oak.” He noted that white pines, however, will be browsed by deer and have to be protected with cages.
Finally, Bryan Kinkel noted that sanctuaries do not have to be permanent. Over time, as the cover in a sanctuary matures, create a new one to replace it in another location. While this requires hunters to learn how to hunt a new sanctuary, it also prevents hunting patterns from becoming too predictable at the old site. “Once you figure out the best way to hunt a particular sanctuary, you’ve got about one season to take advantage of it,” said Bryan. “If you hunt it, a great spot doesn’t stay great for long.”
Go In or Stay Out?
Once you establish a sanctuary, is it okay to occasionally go in after hunting season? Experts agree that a sanctuary’s attractiveness is defined most strongly by a lack of human presence and activity, not by cover type or location. Therefore, the less you enter, the better. The experts I talked to said they do not enter sanctuaries unless it is necessary, for example to recover a harvested deer or to work on maintaining the sanctuary. Some said they don’t count shed hunting as “necessary.” Others said they hunt sheds in sanctuaries when they are already entering to do maintenance.
“If there is a time of year that is best to go in for maintenance work, I think it’s late spring,” said Joe Lacefield. “If you had a bad winter and the deer are stressed, the last thing you want to do is stress them even more in late February by running them out of cover. In a bad winter, post-rut mortality may already be an issue for bucks.”
Who Needs Sanctuaries?
Any deer hunter can benefit from creating sanctuaries, and managers of small properties have the greatest need to incorporate low-pressure areas into their plan.
Most deer hunters create sanctuaries already, they just don’t know it. A diligent effort to identify existing areas with light or no hunting pressure may reveal abundant sanctuaries. If not, they are easily created, and the guidelines presented here, combined with on-the-ground details where you hunt, will help determine the number, size, location and distribution that works for you. Efforts to improve, protect, and take advantage of these sanctuaries may rapidly increase your odds of seeing and harvesting mature bucks that use the land where you hunt.