Every wildlife species requires some type of habitat. Habitat must provide the food, water, cover and proper amount of space to meet the needs of a wildlife species. As such, the term “habitat” is actually specific to a species. For example, the type of habitat required by a grassland-nesting bird species would be different than the habitat required by a forest-dwelling squirrel. Habitat is critically important, but in many cases it does not always take care of itself, at least not anymore.
Some habitats require periodic natural disturbances to maintain their unique characteristics. By “managing” the land, we can often mimic these natural disturbances in places where the disturbance has been eliminated or diminished. Additionally, development has significantly reduced the diversity of habitats in some areas of the state, and managing undeveloped lands helps to maintain this diversity. Management techniques that can be used to mimic natural disturbances include prescribed burning, mowing, timber harvesting, removing non-native species, and planting native species.
Prescribed fire mimics natural fires started by lightning. Shredding and forest thinning can help promote early successional plant species that would naturally occur after floods, hurricanes or storms. While these natural disturbances still occur today, they generally occur at a much smaller scale, especially in more heavily human populated areas. Wildfires are put out before they become a threat to human infrastructure, flooding is controlled with dams, and nuisance beavers are controlled.
Factors that Influence Habitat Management
Soil, topography, elevation, climate, and aspect influence the type of vegetation that can grow in a certain area. These factors determine the type and distribution of habitats that can occur across the landscape. Natural disturbances and human activities then modify the vegetation structure and composition to create the actual habitat conditions to which wildlife populations respond.
Pine forests, for example, are characteristically found on sandy, nutrient poor soil. Only certain species can survive in such conditions. Without prescribed burning of pine woodlands, the leaf and stick litter on the ground accumulates, breaks down, and provides more nutrients in the soil. With more nutrients, other plant species can establish and take over (shade out) the native plant community.
Management actions, such as prescribed fires, burn up the leaf and stick litter, eliminate the non-fire adapted species, maintain openings, and set the clock back on succession. Pine, little bluestem grass, and scrub oak have all evolved to survive this environment by having strategies that help them survive a fire either above ground (as the pitch pine tree) or below ground by having deep roots that help them not only survive a surface fire, but also reach the few essential nutrients and water underground.
Timing is also very important with regards to wildlife and habitat management, especially when managing grasslands for wildlife species. Many avian, reptile, amphibian and insect species use grassland habitats and are vulnerable to mowing at certain times of the year. While adult birds can easily fly away, it is their ground nests and chicks that can be harmed by mowing.
Reptiles and amphibians may be able to move, but not fast enough to escape an approaching tractor. Mammals also use grassland habitats, but are usually more mobile than these other species. It is important to recognize how species may be impacted by management and to reduce harmful impacts to them during habitat management operations.
Why Habitat Management
It can not simply be left alone. Disturbances that historically maintained some habitats have been greatly suppressed for a variety of reasons. Forest fires are now quickly extinguished to prevent damage to structures. Dams are built and maintained to prevent large scale flooding in residential areas, or to generate electricity. In some areas, agricultural activity has been greatly reduced because of depressed crop prices. This results in altered landscapes. All of this results in impacted plant communities and depleted wildlife populations, both which require disturbance-dependent habitats.
Shrublands are a habitat that will always need management. If left alone, these habitats will eventually grow into forests with tall trees. Some shrubland habitats are being maintained along power line corridors, where every three to five years the vegetation is cut down before it can get in the way of power lines. These habitats are especially important for species such as edge-using songbirds and white-tailed deer.
Development pressure on wildlife habitat is also a large threat, especially in environmentally sensitive areas. With every new home, commercial building or parking lot comes a loss of habitat for wildlife. Habitat management not only aims to maintain and enhance available habitat, but to use sound wildlife management practices to restore lost plant communities. Property owners and land managers have a lot of options when it comes to enhancing habitat for wildlife on their lands, but the firs step is to plan for it.