Help wildlife by encouraging conifers in forest stands

Maintaining stands, clumps or even single conifer trees on forested ownerships provides shelter and food sources for a wide variety of wildlife.

Open ground under pine stand following snowfall. Photo credit: Mike Schira l MSU Extension
Open ground under pine stand following snowfall. Photo credit: Mike Schira l MSU Extension

Conifers, which include all of our trees retaining green needles throughout the year, are important to sustaining healthy wildlife populations. These vital trees and shrubs provide nesting, roosting and cover from predators, along food from both seeds and foliage, and even thermal protection.

When making management decisions with regard to forest stands, it is suggested that conifers are retained in stands following any treatments. Clumps or pockets of trees provide the greatest benefit but even single healthy trees left in stands will be helpful. Different species of conifers support varying wildlife so there is an additional advantage to encouraging as many different varieties as possible. Pines, spruce, fir, cedar, juniper, hemlock and yew all play a role in supporting wildlife.

Although most all forest trees support wildlife in some form; conifers can play a special role. Their year round needle foliage provides cover from predators and protections from wind. Stands or pockets of trees growing closely together provide cooling shade in hot weather as well as some thermally warmer areas in winter. Snow accumulation is generally less under conifer stands making it easier for terrestrial wildlife species to move around more easily or to find food.

Many conifers are also a food source for wildlife. Seed contained in the cones, needles, twigs and even the bark provides nourishment for wildlife. Cones, and on juniper and yew, berry like seeds, which remain on the trees into the winter season are especially critical in deep snow areas.

A wide variety of wildlife ranging from the endangered Kirtland warbler to white tail deer, along with snowshoe hair and red squirrel are included in the vast variety of wildlife dependent on conifers to support healthy populations. The Kirkland warbler depends exclusively on a single species of jack pine for food and nesting. Other species, deer for example, utilize a variety of species for browse and thermal protection.

For information on establishing conifers in stands lacking this important component Michigan State University Extension “Tree Series” bulletin E 2753 contains helpful information. Regardless of if you are maintaining existing trees or establishing new conifers in your forested stands, they will help the sustainability and long term health of the areas overall wildlife ecology.

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