Habitat Management Replaces Natural Processes
The most important component of managing native plant communities and wildlife populations is active habitat management. One might think that simply preserving areas is enough, but the fact is that many habitats require periodic disturbances to maintain their natural characteristics. In the past, the processes that “molded” habitat occurred naturally, but have been critically reduce for a host of reasons. For example, natural wildfires are put out as rapidly as possible to prevent damage to man-made structures. Landscape-altering floods that stimulated high quality, early successional plant species are gone in many places because dams have been constructed for the purpose of preventing large scale flooding, as well as to trap water for human use.
The various habitat management practices that are used today are designed to replace what has disappeared. Management techniques often mimic the natural disturbances in areas where the disturbance has been removed or suppressed. Furthermore, the development of substantial amounts of acreage over the top of important natural habitat has significantly reduced the diversity of plant communities in some areas of the US. Habitat management on undeveloped lands by state and federal agencies, as well as many non-government organizations, helps to maintain both plant and wildlife diversity.
Common Habitat Management Techniques
Management techniques that can be implemented to mirror natural disturbances include a variety of practices. The most common actions include controlled or prescribed burning, mowing, timber and brush thinning and removal, removing non-native plant and feral wildlife species, and establishment or re-seeding of native forb, grass and tree species. Other techniques include disking for soil disturbance, which mimics the hoof action of herd animals such as buffalo, and the installation of earthen levees and water control structures, which traps water wetland manipulation.
The most widespread and beneficial habitat management practice is prescribed burning, now more commonly referred to a prescribe fire. Many plants depend on periodic fire for regeneration, including those used for livestock management and production. Fire was historically important for maintaining grassland communities in addition to some forest stands, such as those dominated by pine. Burning sounds simple, but appropriate precautions must be taken to ensure that burns accomplish management goals without collateral damage. Much like doctors create prescriptions for patients, land and wildlife specialist develop burn plants that include the objectives of the burn as well as the prescribed conditions under which plant communities are to be burned. Prescribed fires are highly impacted by weather conditions such as ambient temperature, wind speed and relative humidity.
All of the various habitat management practices are intended to create disturbance. Of course, these land management practices often occur on much smaller scales that they would have historically. In most cases, these actions increase light availability to the soil or turnover the soil. Without management, other plant species (climax communities) can establish and take over. Management actions promote early successional plant species interspersed with other more-established plant communities, creating diverse habitat and making ideal foraging, nesting, roosting and hiding areas for many wildlife species.
Other Habitat Management Considerations
Ask a professional that uses any of the many habitat management practices to manipulate plant communities and they will tell you that although there is both a science and art to carrying out the right practice at the right place at the right time. Timing is paramount when applying management techniques, especially when manipulating grasslands and wetlands for wildlife species. Many animal species use grassland habitats and are vulnerable to either fire or mowing at certain times of the year. In these areas, for example, the best time for management would be late summer or early winter.
Other land-based factors that play a role in plant species composition — as well as the appropriate habitat management practice/s — include soil type, climate, elevation, topography and aspect. These factors affect the type of vegetation that can grow in a specific area. When combined, all of these variables determine the type and distribution of particular plant species that can occur across a landscape to comprise a certain plant community. Habitat management is the action behind the science of mimicking natural disturbances to modify the vegetation structure and composition to create the actual habitat conditions that endemic wildlife species need to survive.