"My first encounter with the hunting land management concept of maintaining a game sanctuary was when I took over control of Eagle Spirit Outfitters outside of Steamboat Springs, Colo.," said Jim Sanchez. "Whether we're talking elk, mule deer or whitetails, the idea is to set aside a sanctuary where game can escape to rest and recoup."

Having hunted with Sanchez a half-dozen times, I can attest firsthand how difficult it was to stand on a high ridge overlooking the sanctuary at Eagle Spirit listening to three or four bull elk bugling their heads off. It was even worse knowing we could not even set foot on that hallowed ground.

But you should have seen the antler racks coming out of it.

Can you imagine a landowner in Mississippi who is also an avid deer hunter setting aside a portion of his property for a "no-play" zone?


Defining a sanctuary

"Depending on the size of your property, one thing that can be very effective is to have a sanctuary or two, 20-50 acres each that is never, ever entered by a human," said Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff of Auburn University. "The only exception would be to recover a wounded or dead deer."

Ditchkoff's area of research and expertise lies in studying the best ways to create, maintain and study prime whitetail habitat.

Recommendations like this one from Ditchkoff are not off-the-cuff, flippant comments without some research justification. A wildlife game sanctuary is a proven idea that has been shown to exhibit plenty of merit for enhancing the overall quality and quantity of a localized deer herd. Mississippi hunters and landowners should consider the idea.

So what exactly is a sanctuary? Well, as Ditchkoff suggests, it is a selected set-aside area within the parameters of the whole hunting property. Its protection from outside impacts should be paramount. In other words, don't locate the sanctuary boundary sharing a common fence with a public road or bordering property. Put it in the middle of the place.

Designate the select area strictly as a no-entry area. No landowner, no lease hunters, no guests, no hikers, no nothing. The idea is to create an escape hideout devoid of all direct human contact or influence. This offers the deer - both bucks and does - a place to get away from outside pressures. That is a sanctuary.


Sanctuary benefits

If you slip off on a Sunday afternoon to the back bedroom or a game room to watch a little football on television and to sneak in a much-needed nap, what benefit do you reap? Quite a few deer hunters I know resort to their own sanctuary while sitting in a nice warm and dry shooting house over a lush food plot at the deer camp.

As the deer season builds toward the rut, it is highly likely that hunting pressure increases at an equally steady rate. The sounds of four-wheelers running the roads, kids yelling in camp, shots at the gun range and all kinds of normal hunting camp activities put all the deer on alert.

Couple that with the woods saturated with various kinds of human-oriented scents from plain-old body odor, gasoline, breakfast bacon, insect repellent and cigarette smoke, and you might imagine how the deer - especially the big bucks - tend to get a little nervous. Would you rather have all these deer scamper across the property line onto your neighbor's food plot, or just slink off to a hideout area you created on your own habitat?

An established sanctuary provides the deer with a temporary place to escape the pressures of the hunting season. What deer do in a sanctuary simply becomes one of the new puzzle pieces of their regular behavior patterns. They don't hide out there and never come out. They have to move in and out of these safe islands to feed, breed, socialize and do what deer do. They are not locked in behind a gate with no exit strategy. They don't reside there all season long.


Selecting sanctuary locations

The tough part may be deciding exactly where to designate a piece of your property off-limits. It needs to be isolated away from any opportunity for random human contact. This may require considerable study of property maps and especially aerial photos to select the best sanctuary site.

In the process, don't forget to consider the needs of the deer. The sanctuary should contain some basic elements of food, water and cover resources. Don't pick a big, open, grown-up, grassy CRP field or row after row of pines in a plantation scheme devoid of the elements deer need to survive and thrive.

Some sites to consider might be a cutover that has a couple of years of growth. Ideally it would have a buffer zone around its edges serving as a gap adjoining the next type of habitat. An isolated cedar grove or one associated with a wetlands swamp makes a good sanctuary. Reclaimed farm fields with a decade or more of new soft-wood timber growth would be good. Whatever you pick, mark the area well so all hunters know its intent to serve as a no hunting or trekking zone. Guard it like your big buck gold mine, because it is.

The concept of a sanctuary for deer in Mississippi might be a hard idea to accept. Look at the whole thing as just one more strategy to employ as part of a comprehensive quality deer management program. Give it some consideration.