Wildlife Habitat

Habitat is a warm, fuzzy idea. However, specific management practices have important aspects that are not necessarily so. What makes a good woodland habitat?

One of the more common objectives heard from forest owners is creating a better wildlife habitat. It is definitely a worthy goal, but determining exactly what the forest owner might mean can be difficult. After all, any sort of habitat is good for somebody. Even a big parking lot can be great feeding grounds if you are a ring-billed gull looking for cast-off French fries.

The term wildlife habitat consists of two words that can be defined in almost innumerable ways, many of which are simple platitudes.

What is wildlife? Does it include ticks, spiders, mosquitoes and black flies? Maybe not. What about salamanders, darters or cowbirds? Wolves? Maybe wildlife is a euphemism for deer, turkey and ducks. A forest owner must decide.

There are over 550 vertebrate species that maintain residence or visit in Michigan and most of them are at least partially dependent upon forests. Every species has variable requirements for activities such as food, shelter, water, nesting, raising young, display, loafing, escape and roosting. These needs might vary by the season. Then there is also migration, either short-distance or long-distance, to consider. Species have different range sizes that can vary with age, gender and habitat quality. Given all the potential combinations, the concept of habitat explodes.

What is habitat? This is a simple question, but it can generate a complex answer. Forest types are numerous with dozens of descriptive features such as tree composition, size, height, longevity and tolerance of shade. In addition, forests are constantly changing, meaning that habitat conditions evolve over time. The playing field is dynamic where the rules change.

Then there are the human perceptions of good versus bad. Sometimes, these perceptions have little to do with habitat quality characteristics. Good management practices might include such potentially objectionable practices such as tree cutting, burning and herbicide use. Such practices frequently generate different human responses.

Some people tend to believe that if the woods look good, then it must be a good habitat. Visual quality is an exceptionally poor measure of habitat quality majority of the time. Human perceptions of good and bad are not necessarily in sync with what various species of wildlife might require from their habitat.

Given the number of wildlife species and the possible combinations of habitat functions, the number of suitable habitats becomes almost infinite. Frankly, wildlife science does not know the full set of requirements for every species because there is a lot to discover. Whitetail deer are, perhaps, the most studied species on the planet, yet research continues to be well funded. However, how much do we really know about coots, racers and voles?

Most large private forest owners and most public agencies, manage woodlands to provide a wide range of conditions such as age, height, density and species mix. The idea is that with a smorgasbord of conditions, all wildlife will find a place. This approach has worked reasonably well over time even when knowing there are some exceptions to this broad idea. There are some stunningly successful wildlife comeback stories.

So, with this universe of species numbers, habitat conditions and various levels of knowledge, what should a forest owner do?

First, a person should think about which species of wildlife they wish to have on their property. Who is there already? Who is not? What can be done with the forest to enhance desired future conditions? What are those desired future conditions? Is the ownership large enough to affect a meaningful change? What are the implications when looking through the lens of a landscape context?

A person may want to consider hiring a consulting wildlife biologist, although there are not too many of these professionals. Sometimes, a forester can help, but usually their expertise lies in suggesting practices to achieve certain woodland conditions with the large presumption that those conditions will meet the forest owner’s habitat goals.

For many, if not most woodland owners, the goal is more deer. The home range for deer usually exceed that of most ownerships so habitat changes can have only a limited impact. Although, the conditions on November 15 might be the sole determining factor. In this way, both foresters and wildlifers can help along with many special interest groups such as Quality Deer Management Associations.

You also have to consider if deer management is equivalent to wildlife management. Is a woodland managed exclusively for more deer an example of good forest management? After all, science has shown that deer overabundance causes ecological havoc. It might be much easier to think in terms of a single species or a related suite of species, but is that good management? Many owners do not care as long as they believe there are more deer or larger racks. However, others will argue that any single species focus lacks the robust quality that they might use to define good habitat or good management practices. This opinion can include an exclusive focus on particular endangered species and popular game species. Oftentimes, single species management comes at a cost to habitat diversity and other goods and services that a property might be able to produce. Taken to an extreme, if food for ring-billed gulls were critical objectives, we could justify paving thousands of acres of woodlands and wetlands.

Of course, any wooded property, even an abused woodland, has more habitat diversity than a farm field or manicured lawn. Therefore, benign neglect might have some advantages, as well as a large clearcut that allows trees to regenerate. A red pine plantation can also add to landscape diversity even though the individual stand might have inherently low species diversity during much of its life cycle.

Wildlife, habitat and management are wonderfully complex sets of ideas and practices. Woodland owners that actively work their property learn much and gain high levels of satisfaction. Those not fortunate enough to possess their own woodlands can have similar experiences by learning more about what happens on public ownerships such as state or federal forests. There is plenty of room in the arena for almost everyone. 

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