Single-species habitat management—the creation of food and cover to boost the population of just one kind of wildlife, such as ruffed grouse, American woodcock, bobwhite quail, or wild turkey—is out of vogue these days.
But making habitat for those popular gamebirds, if it’s done the right way, can also help many other creatures that will share the bounty that habitat management practices provide. This broader ecosystem approach is gaining traction as state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the National Audubon Society, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and Quail Forever urge and advise private landowners to create habitat for a broader suite of wildlife on lands they own or manage.
In conducting site visits to habitat projects on both public and private land, as a communications consultant for the Wildlife Management Institute (a respected science-based NGO), I focus on the effects of creating “young forests”—a type required by the upland gamebirds listed above and also by more than 60 other kinds of wildlife that Eastern states consider “species of greatest conservation need” because their populations have been falling for decades. Those species range from small insects to large herbivores. Many other kinds of wildlife avidly use the resources provided by young forests, even if they don’t require that habitat to survive.
Among the beleaguered animals that require young forests are wood and box turtles, green snakes, bobcats, golden-winged warblers, brown thrashers, Eastern kingbirds, Eastern towhees, New England cottontails, and moose. That’s a very partial roll call. Add to it animals like red and gray foxes, bats, whippoorwills, white-tailed deer, mice and voles, and pollinating insects, and you begin to see that such habitat is needed and used by a wide range of wildlife.
Young forests are sometimes called “early successional habitat” or “thicket habitat.” Young forest is a general, and perhaps an overly simplistic, term for the dense and varied plant life that grows back after forest trees are killed or toppled by a disturbance. In the past, natural disturbances happened with fair frequency, caused by floods, wildfires, the dam-building and tree-felling activities of beavers, insect infestations, and storms. To save lives and protect property, humans have worked to reduce or eliminate most of those natural forces. We’ve dammed streams and rivers. All of us know the slogan, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” However, planned fires, or “prescribed burns,” can actually make terrific wildlife habitat. We trap and remove beavers before their dams hold back water that covers roads and cropland and kills valuable timber.
We can’t control the weather, and storms still knock over some trees in limited areas. Insect infestations rise up from time to time. Disturbances, whether natural or caused by humans, remove trees and let sunlight reach the forest floor where it stimulates the growth of lower plants, including grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and small trees with trunk diameters of only a few inches—all of which produce the food and cover that wildlife needs.
Because of a dearth of natural disturbances, many privately owned lands are cloaked with a uniform growth of woods that is often 50 to 80 years old. Forests of that age offer some food and cover, but not enough of it (or enough different types of it) for many species to thrive. Young forests, and also the related habitat known as shrubland, in which shrubs dominate, offer a diversity and abundance of food and cover that older woodlands can’t provide.
Harvesting trees and selectively mowing older shrubs, which causes strubs such as alders to vigorously grow back, can break up uniform expanses of less-productive habitat. If you belong to a hunting club or own a property where you like to run dogs, hunt gamebirds, or simply observe wild animals, it pays to hire a consulting forester with deep wildlife knowledge to set up a management plan. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service through its popular Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, can provide advice and may cost-share on habitat projects.
Harvesting low-quality trees can shift growth into better-quality ones, gradually increasing the commercial value of the remaining timber in a forest stand. You can use commercial timber-cutting to make several-acre patches of dense, growing forest, where songbirds can find food for their young and ruffed grouse and woodcock will hang out. A timber harvest can increase the percentage of trees in a forest that offer high-quality food: seeds, nuts, and fruits. For instance, a landowner can selectively harvest maple and ash trees to give the remaining oaks and cherries a bigger share of the sunlight, which encourages them to spread their crowns and produce more mast (acorns and cherries) for wildlife, from blue jays to black bears.
Landowners in Northern states have learned that clearcut timber harvests can be a boon for wildlife, including grouse, woodcock, snowshoe hares, and songbirds. In areas with high deer populations, you may be able to “overwhelm” these browsers by clearcutting a large number of acres.
According to the late John Lanier, a habitat biologist in New Hampshire, “A landowner who wants to help wildlife should try to create and maintain an even distribution of habitat components across the landscape—things like forest stands of different ages, old trees that have cavities used by wildlife, and areas where sunlight reaches the forest floor and lets low plants grow.”
Managing habitat for wildlife is as much an art as it is a science, something that I’ve learned over the years from biologists like Lanier, a colleague of mine with the Wildlife Management Institute until he passed away in early 2019. It’s not simple, but it can be hugely rewarding, as I constantly find out when I talk to landowners who’ve undertaken habitat projects.
It’s like landowner Peter Ourada, from Antigo, Wisconsin, told me: “We use timber harvests to make our property a productive woodland. What we’re doing will help wildlife, and it will help us, too, by creating better hunting conditions along with more opportunities to view wildlife. What I’ve learned has helped me become a better landowner and has allowed me to get more enjoyment out of my land.”
Originally published in Volume 8, Number 2 (February-March 2020) of Covey Rise.
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