What types of wildlife habitat should landowners consider?
You’ve decided you want to improve wildlife habitat on your land, and you’ve figured out that you can get financial assistance through the US Farm Bill to do it. The next decision you need to make is what type of habitat you want and where to put it. This is where your Farm Bill Biologist can really help out, and I highly recommend you set up a site visit with him/her to work out the logistics of wildlife habitat development.
In an earlier article, I mentioned briefly that just about any type of wildlife habitat was possible. While that’s true, site conditions vary from property to property, county to county, and – on a larger scale – by latitude and longitude. Varying site conditions will affect which plant species you select for your wildlife habitat, not to mention which wildlife species you manage for. The possibilities for landowners are nearly endless, but there are some common practices that focus on specific imperiled wildlife species and habitat types. I’ll describe some of those now.
If you have any areas on your property that consistently hold water and/or are artificially drained, you might consider wetland habitat. “Wetland” is a broad term, and there are several types of wetlands. Two types of wetland habitat that we need more of in the Midwest are “sedge meadows” and “ephemeral wetlands.” That’s not to say other types of wetlands aren’t important, but these two types have been greatly diminished and historically overlooked.
Sedge meadows and ephemeral wetlands
Sedge meadows and ephemeral wetlands are dominated by plants like sedges, rushes, and flowering vegetation including joe-pye weed, swamp milkweed, button bush, boneset, and foxglove beardtongue. All of these plants tolerate extended flooding, but their roots don’t need to be submerged year-round like aquatic plants. The major factor in both of these habitat types is the soils’ ability to hold low water levels in shallow depressions through the spring and early summer and then dry out by late summer or early fall. This “drying out” is critical.
The spring and early summer shallow water areas are perfect for frogs and salamanders, turtles and migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. By remaining shallow (18” deep or less) and then drying out, these areas can support high wildlife diversity that varies by season. Imagine a shallow wet area full of spring peepers, sedge wrens and migrating blue winged teal in the spring that transforms into bedding cover for white-tailed deer and a feeding area for wild turkey in the fall and winter months.
Many properties throughout the Midwest have a stand of trees. These stands vary in composition and size depending on your geography, and they can be anything from a ¼ acre woodlot to a 100 acre forest. If you’re on the smaller end of that spectrum, you’re probably managing every single tree. On larger tracts of land, time and money are usually limiting factors and you have to be more selective. Many people are somewhere in-between and manage for certain species (e.g., oaks) and focus intensive management on specific stands (e.g., a particular ridgetop). Generally, the first step in forest wildlife management is to complete a forest inventory. A professional forester can help you with this – and they are especially useful if landowners are managing for timber production in addition to wildlife.
Exotic invasive control and forest openings
About 4 of every 5 forested areas I see are suffering from the same ailments. Ailment #1 should be your initial concern, regardless of whether your management priority is timber or wildlife. What is ailment #1? Exotic invasive species. Japanese honeysuckle, Asian bush honeysuckle, multi-flora rose and tree-of-heaven are the big 4 in Southern Indiana forests. All of these species out compete native forest plants, and none of them are as beneficial to wildlife as are our native plants. In 4 out of 5 cases, the first step to improving forested wildlife habitat is removing these exotic invasive through mechanical and/or chemical control.
Ailment #2 is the widespread lack of forest regeneration. There aren’t very many young forests in the Midwest. That’s truly scary, because most forest-dwelling wildlife (even wildlife associated with old-growth forests) depends on young forests during at least one stage of their lives. Creating forest openings within larger tracts can help wildlife by encouraging a flush of green succulent growth that is also rich with nutritious insects and berries. This lush growth is also great wildlife cover. In addition, many of our “dual purpose” tree species (e.g., oaks provide both high value timber and acorns for wildlife) depend on increased light levels for growth. And, the only way to achieve this type of forest regeneration is by opening up the forest canopy.
Native Grassland Habitat
The final habitat type I’ll speak on is consistently missing from the Midwestern landscape with only about 1% to 4% of its original area remaining. It’s a special type of grassland which was once part of a great expanse known as the Tallgrass Prairie. Why does so little of this habitat remain? The reason we have so little today is because of the rich soil building capacity of these grasslands. They were the first to see the plow, and their former range continues to produce some of the best crops in America. We’re starting to recreate some of this habitat, though, and upland birds like Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Bobwhite and Henslow’s Sparrow are responding. Many of our native bees and butterflies are also using this habitat in abundance.
Native Warm Season Grasses
Not every farm acre is productive. Perceptive farmers know where their low-yield areas generally are, and modern technology is helping them identify those areas with high precision. These field edges, irrigation pivot points and corners, and un-maneuverable field pockets are being converted to native warm season grasses and wildflowers through US Farm Bill programs. Our native warm season grasses include species like Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, Little Bluestem, and Prairie Dropseed.
These warm season grasses are bunch-forming rather than sod-forming, and many grassland birds depend on this bunch growth characteristic for nesting and raising young. It turns out that bunches make good nesting sites and the spaces among bunches allow young birds to maneuver and pick off insects (as much as 90% of fledgling birds’ diets are comprised of insects). The all-too-common tall fescue, orchard grass and Kentucky bluegrass field lanes and pastures simply don’t provide good wildlife habitat. If you’re ever in the mood to hear a wildlife biologist rant, ask them their opinion of tall fescue.
Through a process of trial and error that dates back to the mid-1980s, wildlife biologists and natural resource conservationists have determined that native warm season grass isn’t enough for upland wildlife. To have a diversity of wildlife, you need a diversity of plants. Today’s warm season grass seed mixes contain numerous “forbs” (aka wildflowers) in addition to native grasses. The wildflowers provide nectar and pollen sources for pollinating insects, and the insects provide food for upland wildlife like bobwhite quail, 13-lined ground squirrels, and red foxes. Many of the wildflowers we typically encourage also provide fatty seeds for wildlife – like perennial sunflowers, wild senna, partridge pea, tick-trefoil, and native lespedeza. A field of wildflowers is also aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t take much space to develop a patch of native grasses and wildflowers, and it is probably the most appropriate habitat type for most of the Midwest’s non-flooded and non-forested areas.
About the Author:
Zach Voyles is a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist in Southeast Indiana with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, Inc. Indiana’s 4 Farm Bill Biologists work in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to provide wildlife technical assistance to landowners interested in creating or enhancing wildlife habitat.