Hints for habitat- Diversity offers wildlife a smorgasbord

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Improving wildlife habitat is work. That's all there is to it. But there's no sense in making it harder than necessary.

As a private lands conservationist, my job is to help landowners improve the habitat on their property. I like to tell interested landowners their new job is to become farmers of wildlife.

It's important to understand that wildlife -- both game and non-game -- are products of the land. Therefore, a landowner's job is to manipulate the environment to produce a crop of wildlife.

The following hints should be helpful to current landowners. If you're thinking about buying property, keep these suggestions in mind as you look over your prospective purchase.

Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to healthy wildlife populations. An ideal property will have a mix of forest, grassland, crop fields or food plots, old fields or idle areas.

Within each of these vegetative types, we want to see as many plant species growing as possible. In the case of a forest, we need to see a mix of tree species, particularly nut and fruit trees. We also need to have a wide range of tree sizes and ages.

The same is true for grasslands. Mixed stands of cool season grasses and legumes are good. Native warm season mixes are important as nest sites. Single species stands of grass, like fescue, lack the diversity needed by most wildlife species.

Crop fields are almost always monocultures -- single species -- as are most grain food plots. Food plots are not the ultimate wildlife management tool. Food plots should be supplemental feed only for years when natural food is not sufficient got wildlife survival. This will be mostly during the winter.

Food plots must be cared for correctly. Soil tests should be taken for all plot sites. The plot has to be limed and fertilized according to the crop intended to be grown.

Wildlife and farm production can flourish on the same acre. A hay field or pasture with mixed cool season grasses and legumes provides excellent high protein forage for livestock. This same pasture will be used by deer for forage and by turkeys as a bugging area when raising young poults.

Forests are a renewable resource that provide wood products and wildlife habitat at the same time. From a habitat standpoint, a tract of timber which is correctly managed for forest products is usually better habitat than the same tract with a no-cut policy. Harvesting trees the right way and conducting timber stand improvements are the most common ways to improve forest diversity. These practices encourages tree regeneration and promote under-story growth. The latter is, of course, important browse for deer and turkey. Old growth should be protected, or carefully managed because it's part of the diversity we desire.

Old fields or idle areas are important areas for nesting, brood rearing and loafing. Often they are used as bedding areas by deer and roost sites for quail. Before developing these areas, it is important to kill all permanent grasses like fescue to ensure that a wide variety of plants will grow there.

Early successional habitat -- young, developing type of habitat -- is important for all wildlife species and is easy to produce. Nothing needs to be planted, just kill out any permanent vegetation. Then lightly disk about a third of the area in the fall and continue to disk another third each following year. This type of habitat will produce more food of various types than any food plot and costs less.

Plant succession is nothing more than the continuous change in the types of plants growing on a site from year to year. When you disturb a site, say by disking, the first plants that grow are annuals. The next year these give way to bi-annuals. Eventually these in turn give way to perennials. Annuals produce more seed than perennials and therefore provide more food for wildlife. If left alone, most areas in Missouri will eventually return to trees.

Why is diversity so important?

Think about a large family going out to dinner. What type of restaurant is most likely to suit everyone's taste that day -- one that serves only steak or one that offers a smorgasbord?

When you develop habitat with a lot of diversity, you're creating a smorgasbord for wildlife. On any given day, you have the best chance of providing wildlife with what they need on that day to survive. Of course, not all properties will contain a diversity of habitat types.

However, some degree of plant diversity can be achieved through well-planned management, which is where a private lands conservationist can help. Give us a call at 290-5730.

Dave Wissehr is a private lands conservationist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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