Managing Land for Wildlife and the Plants They Need
The most basic aim of wildlife management is to provide what the animal needs at the appropriate scale so that they can make best use of the available habitat. Sometimes this aim is not as clear as we would like it to be. What should we do if we are trying to manage for multiple species at different scales, or if the scale of ownership does not match well with the spatial needs of the species? Consider three rather different types of wildlife; the Texas horned lizard, the white-tailed deer, and the Rio Grande wild turkey. The Texas horned lizard typically has a home range of 1 to 2 acres, the white-tailed deer spends most of the year living in an area of 300 to 600 acres, while the annual home range of the Rio Grande wild turkey may be 1,500 to over 3,000 acres! For most landowners, any habitat management for any wildlife species is readily available to turkeys at some time during the year (assuming that there are any turkeys around!). On the other hand, if you are trying to make life better for horned lizards you need to make sure that they can actually take advantage of what you have provided. Everything they need to survive has to be readily available in a very small area.
So, does all of this mean that we have to decide up-front what species we are going to manage for and what the scale of management will be? Do we have to write-off the Texas horned lizard if we want to manage for deer? Is there any way to manage habitat that might benefit a large number of species? The astute reader will have already guessed that there must be, otherwise there wouldn’t be any need for this article!
The Impact of Past Management Practices
Until fairly recently, most rangeland was managed pretty exclusively for livestock. For a long time we recognized the problem of grazing out the best plants and the decline of range condition. The obvious solution was to achieve the most uniform use of the resource possible in order to avoid having the range become dominated by less favorable plants. Even use should result in a homogeneous stand of vegetation, resulting in less spot grazing and over-use of preferred plants. While this might be good for livestock and rangelands, it is not always ideal for plants and wildlife.
Not only do different species of wildlife live at different scales, but they also use different types of habitat throughout the year. Quail nesting habitat is different than brooding habitat, deer fawning habitat is different than winter habitat, and so on. If you use livestock to produce a uniform stand of vegetation, some of the needs of wildlife will go unmet. How do we manage for a variety of different habitat types?
Smaller is Often Better for Wildlife Units
The need for variety in habitat structure and composition gave rise to the concept of “patch burn and graze” about 10 years ago. Prescribed burning is used to remove tall, rank vegetation from a relatively small area. Livestock are attracted to the fresh, green growth that results. Livestock grazing of these areas removes much of the grass and leaves the vegetation short, creating conditions that we refer to as “early successional”. Over the course of a few growing seasons these patches will then return to the well-developed community that was there previously. By continuing to implement the “patch burn and graze” management on different patches every year we can insure that there are multiple patches of early-, mid-, and late-successional vegetation available.
Now that we have a tool for creating a variety of habitat conditions we need to decide how big the patches should be and how often they will need to be burned. Research currently underway at the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area is investigating the use of patches 2 to 3 acres in size. These patches are arranged in a rough square of 9 such patches. The plan is to burn the outside patches every 4 years, once with a cool-season fire and once with a warm season fire. The center patch will not be burned. The prescribed burns for wildlife habitat enhancement are rotated around the outside so that 1 cool-season and 1 warm-season fire take place each year. This allows each patch 4 years to regrow after each fire. It also means that there should be a wide variety of habitats available in a relative small area. The size of the individual patches is aimed at relatively non-mobile creatures like lizards, snakes and small mammals. The 9 patches taken together should provide the space and variety needed to support species like the bobwhite quail. Now we just need to figure out how to make it work for the wildlife that live at a larger scale.
Replicate Success for Good Habitat Diversity
The handy part about working with a burn management unit like this is that they can be replicated across a pasture or property to impact larger areas. Landowners could create just one unit, or a handful, or a dozen depending on their needs and how much time and effort they have to dedicate to the management process. Livestock stocking rates need to be adjusted so that they spend the majority of their time on the current and one year-old burn patches. There is no need to turn an entire property into burn management units, but it is probably best to put several together in one area to provide the greatest habitat variety and simplify management. With a little planning, a little work, and a little luck it should be possible to provide for all the habitat needs of a wide variety of wildlife species.