Enhancing Wildlife Habitat with Planned Forest Management

The author of this article, Don Dietz, is FRC's Recreational Lease, SFI, and Safety Manager based in Lufkin, Texas. He has over 40 years experience as a certified wildlife biologist in East Texas.

As a young biologist working for a large timber company, I quickly learned a forester does not need a wildlife biologist to help manage a forest. However, a wildlife biologist does need a forester to accomplish wildlife objectives. Yes, a wildlife biologist can recommend doe harvests and the protection of young bucks, food plots and even supplemental feeding. While all of that is important, it doesn’t come close to the impact of managing the overall habitat. Therefore, nothing can enhance wildlife habitat like a properly executed timber management plan.

You must consider home range when discussing habitat. Depending on the species and quality of the habitat, home ranges can vary in size from a few acres to thousands of acres. Obviously, big game has larger home ranges than small game. Also, migrant birds have larger home ranges than ground-dwelling birds. The species sets the outer boundaries of the home range, but the quality of the habitat sets the inner boundaries. Look at the ever-popular Northern Bobwhite, or Gentleman Bob, a non-migratory ground dwelling gamebird. Most research agrees that 40 acres of decent habitat is their average home range. However, their home range can vary from 10 to more than 200 acres, depending on the quality of habitat.

In the southern pine forests, different critters prefer different homes with every animal species having a preferred home range within a specific habitat. For example, neo-tropical migrant birds often prefer open, freshly cleared, or recently planted pine plantations. This type of habitat represents the first successional stage with an abundance of bare ground interpreted with grasses and smaller shrubs and, of course, planted pine seedlings. As these stands mature, they become more inviting to other suites of species that prefer a more enclosed forest canopy. Pine stands around age fifteen have enclosed or mostly enclosed canopies with heavy shade on the forest floor. This type of habitat provides good cover for both large and small game but relatively little food. Therefore, it is of great benefit to wildlife when forest managers implement the first thinning harvest in pine stands.

As a wildlife biologist who enjoys hunting deer, turkey, and birds, I love first and second thinning harvests. These activities open the tree canopy exposing daylight to the forest floor. All sorts of legumes and forbs flourish in the newfound sunlight, creating a buffet for species ranging from butterflies and bees to turkey and deer. On occasion, some pine stands become overstocked with unwanted hardwood competition prohibiting the pines and wildlife from flourishing. Many foresters will apply a ground application of herbicide in these instances. Prescribed fire often enhances the effects of this treatment. Most folks unfamiliar with this practice often react unfavorably, as they see nothing but dead brush beneath the pine canopy. However, this condition is only temporary as quality forage and forbs will take over the newly available space. With or without fire, the reduction of understory brush species improves wildlife habitat as well as enhances growing conditions for planted pine. Open conditions following a thin will last for several years until the canopy, again, closes as the trees age and grow taller. This is when a second thinning harvest is often completed and the miracle of new forage growth begins again.

The circle of life is never so evident as when watching the rotation of pine plantations under proper management. When the forest reaches 25 to 30 years of age, it is often time to conduct the final harvest. At this point, the entire stand is harvested with exception of streamside management zones and other buffers. The site is then prepared for another planting. Once the trees are planted, the cycle begins again. First, successional species sprout and the animals that love them migrate to the area. Those animal species which prefer an older stand move on down the road to a habitat that better suits them. That is why having a variety of pine stand age classes is so important to the wildlife. At any given time, a pine stand will provide what one suite of species requires as animals relocate to areas that meet their needs. Not to mention, the various age classes of timber provide landowners more opportunities to generate cashflow from both thinnings and final harvests.

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