Habitat Management: Seeing The Big Picture

What are your goals for habitat management on your property? Do they involve an overall plan for habitat and forests or existing timber? Or have you separated them into two categories believing they shouldn’t be managed in concert? Doing the latter could create problems, which is why it’s usually best to manage with an overall picture and goals.

By Bill Gray

Many landowners seek the assistance of a professional wildlife biologist because they want to “do something to help wildlife on their property.”

In many cases, their desire is to increase numbers of their favorite species and, subsequently, to improve hunting conditions for those species. Too often, a meeting between a landowner and a biologist amounts to only a brief discussion about what to plant, when to plant it, and how many animals should be harvested. When the conversation turns to managing the entire landscape, many landowners place wildlife habitat management and forest management in separate boxes never to be co-mingled.

Habitat management should involve a broad spectrum of things that may include food plot management.

The truth is that wildlife habitat management and forest management are inextricably bound – for better or worse. While much is made of the role of managing wildlife openings, this practice provides a very limited impact on the overall suitability of wildlife habitat. Nothing plays a larger role in providing essential wildlife habitat requirements than active forest management.

The fact that 90 percent of a 500-acre tract is comprised of 8-year-old loblolly pine plantations clearly impacts whether the land provides key habitat elements such as diversity, food production and cover types in sufficient quantities to meet the seasonal needs of a variety of wildlife species. A unit of habitat fitting the previous description is certainly a legitimate option for landowners who are interested in maximizing the economic capacity of their lands. However, landowners should note that when one set of interests is selected for, other interests are selected against. This is an undeniable law of resource management.

For landowners interested in balancing economic interests with wildlife and recreational interests, there are resource management options that provide both aspects of management with consideration sufficient to produce the proverbial “win-win” arrangement. The most desirable approach to achieving balance in resource management begins with careful planning before significant management activities (such as timber harvest or reforestation) are implemented.

All too often, a landowner will conduct large-scale timber harvests, reforest the harvest units for maximum production, then contact a wildlife biologist to answer the question, “What can I do for wildlife now that I’m done with my timber management?” Frequently, the answer is, “Not much, now.”

A better solution involves consulting with a competent resource management team comprised of a professional wildlife biologist and a professional forester before large-scale habitat modifications are made. During this planning phase, landowner goals can be clearly stated and understood. Once a clear understanding is established among all involved, the biologist and forester can work together to devise and implement a sustainable plan for providing both timber income and suitable wildlife habitat.

The mix of components involved in producing such a model is fairly straightforward. It all begins at ground level, with identifying soil properties and planting site-suited timber species. It involves minimizing “black out” time in pine plantations by using a wider spacing when planting and by thinning stands as early as practical and as heavily as is required for a multiple-use approach. It requires understanding that all hardwoods aren’t the same in terms of the benefits they provide to wildlife, that they aren’t sacred relics and that they require management just like pine species. It requires the judicious use of prescribed fire and, often, selective herbicides to develop or improve both timber production and wildlife habitat health. It requires an understanding of the habitat requirements of target wildlife species, an understanding of basic forestry principles, and a willingness to integrate both in an effort to achieve that near perfect balance commonly known as stewardship.

Quite simply, the act of compartmentalizing forest management and wildlife management is a case of not seeing or refusing to see the larger picture. It is a sort of tunnel vision that management professionals on either side of the fence can no longer afford. To best assist landowners who are open to the possibilities of an integrated approach to resource management, forest management and wildlife management should be considered as two interconnected aspects of the complex amalgam we refer to as habitat management.

After all, that’s exactly what’s being accomplished … for better or for worse.

Bill Gray is a Supervising Wildlife Biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.


Understanding Whitetails

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