What is Wildlife Management?
Wildlife management is the maintenance or enhancement of native plant communities for the benefit of wildlife. Plants comprise the habitat that wild animals need, so one of the most important things a property owner interested in wildlife can do is to improve the wildlife habitat found on their property. Most people think simply preserving a “natural” area is the best thing that can be done for native plants and wildlife, but that is rarely the case. The fundamentals of wildlife management is centered around creating better habitat, actually mimicking the natural processes that promote high quality plant communities.
Doing nothing can work, but most native plants and animals thrive with periodic disturbance. The reason is because nature is constantly changing. In the past, flooding by streams, creeks and rivers occurred every few years, wildlfires burned every year across native grasslands, and tornadoes and hurricanes impacted vegetation. Native plants and wild animals are very comfortable with change. Humans are not necessarily opposed to change, but we have tried to discourage the natural processes that maintain native species.
Setting Back Succession for the Management of Wildlife
Succession is the natural progression plant communities go through as they transform from bare ground to the mature forests or grasslands. The stage of growth of different plant communities is referred to as the stage of “succession.” Certain species of vegetation are found at the various stages of succession. Certain wildlife species also do best using various stages of succession. Wildlife and habitat management strives to influence succession for the benefit of plants and the wildlife species that require them.
Succession can start immediately after a fire, a landslide, or any other natural phenomenon that results in the disturbance or removal of vegetation. Succession, for example, can be illustrated as a pond filling in, then turning into a marsh, then a grassy wet meadow, then a willow flat and then finally a wooded area. Each of those stages benefits certain plants and animals at different times. On the other hand, if the entire world consisted of only wooded habitat then only a few plants and animals would be found in abundance.
The Wildlife Management Toolbox
People can manage the plant communities that comprise wildlife habitat by injecting disturbance. The various practices we can implement to “hit the reset button” on succession comprises our wildlife management toolbox. For example, disking a grassland, clear-cutting a forest or using prescribed fire to knock back vegetation are all examples of creating early stages of plant succession.
If a forest burns, succession normally goes back to its earliest, bare ground stage. Grasses and forbs appear first, then other plants that thrive in full sunlight emerge. Gradually, small shrubs appear, eventually to be replaced by larger trees that out-compete them for nutrients and sunlight. The process eventually ends with a forest that is composed of mature trees with very little understory. The same process takes place when a native grasslands burn. Grasses and forbs that thrive in early successional situations are eventually replaced by grasses and shrubs that represent the most advanced prairie stage. The most advanced vegetative compositions of forests and grasslands are called the climax stage or climax community.
Property owners interested in habitat management must determine which stages of plant succession they will manage towards in order to develop habitat for specific wildlife species, as well as which natural processes they must mimic to accomplish their goals. There are, after all, always options. Biologist Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1933 book titled Game Management, “…game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it – ax, plow, cow, fire, and gun.”
The Axe for Wildlife Management
Most wildlife species are selective foragers, preferring to feed on a wide variety of plants rather than a few specific ones. Therefore, habitat improvement recommendations should emphasize the need for an even distribution of food supply from season to season, and the production of a wide variety of choice. Brush management and manipulation plans for solid stands of woody vegetation to be interspersed with cleared areas. Cleared strips or blocks produce desirable forb and browse production, while retaining an adequate mosaic of woody cover for escape, nesting, or protection from the elements.
Properly utilized brush management practices can improve the menu of escape cover and food plants for both wildlife and livestock. All brush management practices affect native populations in some way. Whether those impacts have a positive or negative affect is dependent on how the practice influences food supply and individual cover needs.
The Cow: Livestock for Wildlife Management
Prior to European settlement, bison ranged over most native grasslands. These great herds were constantly on the move to allow grazed areas to recover. Their hooves churned the soil leaving bare areas for annual forbs and grasses to take hold. Forb-eating animals like white-tailed deer and pronghorn and weed/seed-eaters like mourning dove and bobwhite quail were attracted to these areas. Land managers today use domestic livestock as a wildlife management tool to mimic the bison herds to manipulate and enhance plant diversity for wildlife.
The primary role of grazing in a wildlife management program is to reduce the quantity of old-growth, rank grass monocultures, allowing sunlight to reach the lower growing forbs which are important wildlife foods. In turn, this management practice also creates structural diversity for nesting, brood rearing, and escape cover.
The Plow for Wildlife Habitat
Speaking of disturbance, have you ever noticed that the first plants to return in a plowed, disked, or otherwise disturbed piece of ground are weeds? Exposed to air, light, and water, seeds that were lying dormant in the soil begin to germinate following soil disturbance. These young, succulent plants are high in nutrient value and attract a variety of wildlife species. Deep soils are conducive to tillage by the farm plow that often produces favorable results for forb and seed-eating wildlife.
Soil disturbance works great in areas where the topography is generally flat to gently rolling as opposed to steep hills, mountains or rocky draws or in areas where soils are highly erodible. Thus, soil tillage is another useful tool when promoting the growth of desirable wildlife foods. Food plots can work great, but the seeds to grow your own native forb buffet is already in the soil!
Using Fire to Manage Habitat for Wildlife
Many regions of the US evolved with fire. However, fires are not all alike. Prescribed fires are also known as controlled burns because they control some plants and encourage the growth of others. Properly applied fire is one of the least expensive wildlife management tools available to landowners and wildlife resource agencies. However, it is the most feared management practice by private landowners and the general public.
Historically, natural and man-caused fires occurred frequently. Now, biologist use fire to manipulate vegetation for the benefit of wildlife. A prescribed burning program, in conjunction with grazing deferment and deer harvest management, is an effective tool for managing wildlife habitat on forest lands and savannahs. There are many courses and classes available to learn more about prescribed fire as a tool for wildlife habitat management.
Prescribed fire enhances habitat diversity by increasing plant quality and increases the quantity of wildlife foods (forbs) by suppressing non-native grasses. It also increases nutrient cycling by fixing nitrogen in the soil from burn debris, thereby having a fertilization effect on the range. Properly used fire can also increases moisture filtration into the soil while controlling invasive, non-fire-tolerant plants.
Gun: Harvest Management for Habitat Enhancement
In populations where harvest management does not occur, animal numbers will soon build to levels exceeding range carrying capacity resulting in habitat degradation, starvation, and death. A managed harvest helps assure that there is plenty of food for the number of animals present on the range. This is especially important in areas that have plant communities where white-tailed deer are found
Balancing deer numbers with the amount of forage available insures maximum body and antler growth in order for more animals to reach their genetic potential. Hunting helps to control deer populations, but also protects the plants that make up the habitat found there. Since it is known that deer prefer forbs over woody browse, biologists use browse plants to judge the quality of habitats and to assess habitat overuse by the deer population in the area.
To Sum Up: Diversity for Wildlife Management
It is important to remember that succession is always trying to advance, but active wildlife management can, if desired, knock it back to a more productive, useful state. The ideal stage today may be too advanced 5, 10 or 20 years from now. Planning a rotation so there will always be some prime habitat available is part of any good habitat management plan. The plan will allow for optimal successional stages now and at set intervals until the cycle can begin again.
Most wildlife species need more than one vegetation succession stage to meet their demands for food and cover. Creating a variety of vegetation communities, made up of a variety of species at different ages, results in a mosaic of plant communities. This mosaic of vegetation is much more desirable than a large area made up of even-aged, single species plants. Creating this vegetation diversity is the best way to meet the multitude of habitat requirements that are best for the wildlife found on your land.