by W. H. “Bill” Tomlinson
For the past 25 years, I have been privileged to consult with landowners in at least half of the states in the contiguous United States. Without fail, their primary objectives have been and continue to be the management of their respective properties for wildlife, recreation and aesthetics. Timber management, while an integral and inseparable part of the overall management equation, is often a secondary objective pursued to the benefit of their primary objectives. Responsible stewardship is the common thread that binds this diverse group of landowners and their respective properties together.
A common question is: “How can I make my property more productive for wildlife?” Inevitably the conversation quickly turns to specifics. As comedian Lily Tomlin once said: “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.” Specifics are important.
The basic foundation of wildlife management begins with habitat. Wildlife habitat simply defined, is the ability of an area to provide the annual necessities of food, water, cover, escape habitat and a safe place to raise their young. If wildlife includes everything from elephants to earthworms, then habitat requirements are just as diverse.
On the surface, managing habitat for backyard wildlife seems relatively simple, inexpensive and fun. Hang a few feeders, install some wildlife friendly plants, put up a bird house or two and you are in business. Then the raccoons and squirrels show up and raid the feeders, deer eat the shrubs and flowers and cow birds occupy the bird houses. Frustrating? Possibly. Irritating? Likely. Demoralizing? Definitely.
Now, let’s change the scale a bit, expand our acreage from one acre to one thousand, add the management of deer, turkey, ducks, song birds, squirrels to our focus; then throw in a few neighboring properties, seasonal flooding, and,……….well, you get the picture.
Find Your Property’s Personality
Like people, every property has its own persona or personality. To quote Erich Fromm; “Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality.” Likewise, recognizing the personality traits of a property is the key to opening its potential for management, development and ultimately owner enjoyment. Unfortunately, failure to recognize critical character traits of a particular property often leads to frustration, disenchantment and ultimately disposal of the asset.
One critical question to consider when pondering property assets and habitat in particular is this: Does the property have the potential to produce the quantity and quality of recreational opportunity desired and if not, can the habitat be manipulated to produce the desired result?
What Will You Do On the Property?
Consumption of property assets is the key. For example, properties which allow for “bow hunting only” can often provide more recreational opportunity and accommodate more man-days of hunting pressure than can similar sized areas which allow gun hunting. Likewise, habitat manipulation for bow hunting properties is often very different than for gun hunting properties.
Keep in mind though, that regardless of the property and its various habitat features, there are a finite number of animals that can be consumed on an annual basis without adversely affecting the quality and quantity of the target species. In contrast, non-consumptive activities such as bird-watching, equestrian trails, quiet enjoyment, etc., often relate more to aesthetic habitat perpetuation for human visitors than to habitat manipulation and enhancement of various resident and non-resident wildlife.
Identify the Wildlife You Want To Focus On and Its Habitat Needs
Early identification of predominate wildlife species of interest, as well as, related habitat needs and limiting factors are all critical elements relative to the management, development and enhancement of any property. Wild turkey may be a featured wildlife species on a forested property. On the surface, existing populations and habitat for that species may be ideal. Nevertheless, annual and persistent flooding during nesting season may adversely affect the ability of that property to consistently produce annual broods of these ground nesters and thus population recruitment. While adult birds typically survive periodic flood events by escaping to the forested canopy, population stability may be adversely affected by one or more consecutive years of flooding during the nesting season.
Similarly, management and production of trophy deer may be a primary or companion property management focus. Juxtaposition of high ground, which is often a key internal escape habitat feature, becomes problematic if the high ground habitat is located on an adjacent property. Additional problems accrue if flood events occur during hunting season and adjacent properties affording the best escape habitat are heavily hunted, are open to public hunting and/or are located adjacent to high traffic areas where poaching and deer/vehicle interaction may be a major factor in herd mortality and re-population.
Manipulation, Maintenance, and Management
Habitat enhancement for selected game and non-game species is most often achieved by planned manipulation of key habitat features. Enhancement practices may include installation of food plots/mineral stations, creation of permanent wildlife openings, habitat restoration (tree/shrub plantings), installation of habitat connectors and travel conduits, vehicular access management, walking trails versus vehicular access, timber harvest, manipulation of commercial agricultural practices, roadside enhancement (widening existing roadways), identification of and retention of critical habitat features including critical bedding/fawning/nesting/brood and young rearing habitats, invasive plant control, prescribed burning and fertilization of native plants.
Careful application of the “Three M’s” (manipulation, maintenance and management) is critical to ones success in both recognition and retention of habitat utility. Simply put, proper recognition of current and changing habitat features is vital to the production and perpetuation of both singular and multiple wildlife species selected for management. Habitat is not static; it is ever-changing. Habitat, which today furnishes food and cover may, over time become tomorrow’s challenge for regaining lost productivity. Without man’s intervention, habitat will evolve naturally through the timelessness clock of ecological processing and with little regard for human chronology. As newsman Dan Rather so aptly quoted “And now the sequence of events in no particular order.”
Learn About Your Property and Its Habitat
My stock advice to most new landowners is this: take a year, maybe two, to get to know the personality of your property and that of your neighbors. Identify problem areas and/or areas with which you have concerns and/or questions. To long standing property owners, I often begin with the question: What property features have changed over time and how have those changes affected wildlife movement; either positively or negatively.
To conclude, I have seen irreplaceable bedding/escape habitat bulldozed because, to the uninformed eye, “it was just holding the world together”. In truth, it really was the integral connecting fabric that was holding the world together with regards to that particular property and for the purposes for which it had been purchased. Similarly, I have seen food plots slated for abandonment because “deer just don’t use them anymore”. In reality, deer still used them but largely at night and primarily because the surrounding woodland had evolved to an open understory and where the elements of low ground/midstory cover were severely diminished. Predictably, the addition of hunting pressure seriously exacerbates the effects diminishing vegetative cover elements and corresponding animal movement.
Carefully ponder changes to habitat, giving thoughtful consideration to seasonal importance, ecological significance and species-specific implication. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask a skilled resource professional for advice. In the words of Erica Jong and in its most realistic application “advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t”.
Bill Tomlinson is a Certified Wildlife Biologist, Registered Forester and owner of Sustainable Resource Managers, LLC. Bill graduated from Mississippi State University in 1972, with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Forest Management, and in 1977, earned a Master of Science Degree in Wildlife Ecology. Bill has worked in the field of integrated property management (timber, wildlife, recreation and agriculture) since 1977. Sustainable Resource Managers conducts hands-on management on over 120,000 acres of property geographically located from Mississippi to New Mexico. Bill has been the resident wildlife, forestry and environmental consultant for Purvis Grange Foundation, Inc., Tara Wildlife and Affiliated properties for the past 23 years.