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Wildlife Habitat

Still, the long-term key to wildlife management lies not in direct control of numbers and populations of animals, but in the provisions of suitable quality habitat. Habitat is where animals live. It must provide the food, water, cover and other needs of the wildlife species it supports. This is not a secret shared only by forest managers, but most forest wildlife habitat is managed by foresters. It is not a coincidence that the recovery of many wildlife populations in Alabama took place when forest industry and private landowners began to practice good forest management in the state.

"Carrying Capacity"

There is a principle of wildlife management called "carry capacity ". The term describes the capability of a unit of land to support a wildlife species or group of species. Carrying capacity is determined by factors that managers cannot control, like soil type, rainfall, climate, geographic region, etc., and by a number of other factors that can be artificially modified, such as plant community, age class, diversity, and a host of others. On some public lands and private hunting preserves, those management decisions are made by wildlife biologists

or experienced managers. On the majority of private land, however, manipulation of wildlife habitat is done by foresters and forest owners, and private forestlands make up almost 95 percent of the forestland in Alabama and much of the Southeast.

Deer"Wildlife Friendly"

In the past, foresters, while managing for timber and other forest products, may have been only marginally aware of the effects, both good and bad, their management was having on the quality of wildlife habitat. That situation is changing and changing fast as private and public owners of forest land become aware of the wider impacts forest management practices have on the total forest environment. This heightened awareness has come about for a number of reasons. Undeniable, the often unwelcome criticism of forestry practices by environmental activists has focussed the attention of forest managers on the effects their fires, harvests, and reforestation efforts have on wildlife habitat and the environment as a whole. In addition, the potential of increased profits from land rich in wildlife make concessions to wildlife habitat management attractive. Finally, and I think most significantly, almost every forester I know has a abiding interest I natural resources in general and wildlife in particular. It is usually difficult to get a forester to accept wildlife management as a part of his overall forest management effort.

Habitat Management

That said, just how does a forester go about incorporating wildlife considerations into his management practices? He can't avoid it! Every forest change he imposes is inevitably a change in habitat quality for many species. One of the difficulties in differentiating between good and bad wildlife habitat is the impossibility of limiting the term wildlife to one species or group of species. For example, most people think of game animals when they think of wildlife. There are less than ten species of upland game animals in Alabama. There are literally hundreds of other animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and a host of invertebrates that live and interact in Alabama's forests. It is impossible to provide habitat for all these species at the same time except on a very large scale. For instance, good bobwhite quail habitat may also be good fox squirrel habitat but is usually very poor grey squirrel habitat. Good gopher tortoise habitat is poor wood duck habitat by may be good redcockaded woodpecker habitat.

In natural and managed situations, plant and animal communities go hand in hand through a series of changes call succession. For instance, upland southeastern forests, after a disturbance such as catastrophic fire, windstorm, disease, insect attack or timber harvest typically go through a fairly predictable series of plant communities, called seral stages, beginning with brushy shrubs, pines and if left undisturbed long enough, mixed hardwoods. There are wildlife communities that flourish and decline with the coming and going of each of these seral stages.

Another principle of wildlife management is the value of "edges" in the ecosystem. Edges are the transitional zone where two ecotypes interface. They are rich in niches, the "slots" in the environment where plants and animals "fit". The variety of forest ages and types created in a managed forest through harvest and other management practices creates a great deal of edge and favors many, but not all, wildlife species.

Fire in the Forest Environment

Fire is a natural occurrence in the southern forest and most of our native wildlife species evolved with it. Whether the fire is set by man or lightning, changes in the plant and animal community are an inevitable result. In most instances, succession is reset to an earlier stage by fire. For instance, when foresters set fires in the winter, the dormant season for most plants, their goals may be to reduce the hazard of damaging wildfires by burning the accumulation of natural combustible fuels under controlled conditions and to reduce underbrush. Winter fires seldom completely kill woody brush, however. Instead, these shrubs grow back from the roots, forming succulent and nutritious sprouts for browsing deer and improving habitat for that species. The exposure of the forest floor to sunlight that results from burning the litter layer allows sunlight to reach the soil and enhances germination of the seeds of grasses and legumes which, in turns provide excellent food for quail, turkeys, songbirds, and rodents and other small mammals. Young quail and turkeys rely heavily on insects to make up most of their diet during the crucial first six months or so of their lives. They are building tissue and bone, reaching almost full size in that short period. The high protein diet provided by insects is essential for that growth. Research has indicated that insect populations are higher in burned forests than in unburned forests. Winter fires usually do not burn into the wetter drains that crisscross the southern forest landscape and therefore create a transitional zone and the edge valuable escape, breeding, young-rearing, and leisure cover for wildlife.

Growing season fires can completely kill woody plants, converting a forest understory to one of nothing but grasses and herbs. This is excellent habitat for early successional wildlife species like quail and grass birds, but poor habitat for rufous-sided towhees or yellow-breasted chats, both brush nesting birds. Fires during the early spring may threaten turkey nests and later fires those of other nesting birds. The lesson is that fire, long used in timber management, is at the same time a valuable management tool for wildlife habitat. A manager can select the plant and animal communities he chooses to favor, set his burning regime accordingly, and achieve his timber management objectives while improving wildlife habitat for the desired species.

Timber Harvest and Habitat Quality

The same concept holds true for timber harvests and reforestation. The kind and quality of wildlife habitat varies throughout the life of a timber stand. From the earliest stages in a stand's life until its maturity, it provides a changing variety of niches for wildlife. A forest is made up of a collection of stands, each differing from the other in the mix of tree species, age of the trees, numbers of trees, or some combination of these and other factors. Each, then, contains different niches for wildlife in varying supply. Clearcuts are excellent habitat for deer, quail, rodents, and seed-eating birds for a year or two, then support good populations of brush-nesting birds for the next several. A series of clearcuts spaced over several years, mixed with older stands and stands of different types, creates a continuum of age classes and successional stages in the total forest area. The combination of all of these stands in forest provides for a wondrous diversity of wildlife habitats and wildlife. Species conditions for a variety of wildlife is an inevitable result.


There is a biological concept currently in vogue with many in the natural resources field called biodiversity. Simply defined, it describes the complete spectrum of animal and plant life a given area can support a swell as the interactions between and among these inhabitants. The mature longleaf pine/wiregrass community, believed by many to be the historically dominant forest type over almost 70 million acres of the Southwest prior to European settlement appears to be one of the most "biodiverse" communities in the world. Some studies indicate 300-400 species per hectare (10,000 square meters) occur in remnants of that ecosystem. By comparison, some tropical rainforests number thousands of species per hectare. That is truly biodiversity on a grand scale. Biodiversity car be measured on many scales, however. Numbers of species per hectare is one measure, diversity on a landscape or regional level is another. Seventy million acres of any one forest type may be very rich in species diversity on a per acre basis, but have only those species present over the entire area. Today's forest management schemes create a diversity of forest types across the landscape. Although any given acre may be relatively poor in numbers of wildlife and plant species, the entire forest area may be rich in stands of different plant species, different age classes, and different management regimes, each with its accompanying unique wildlife community. The result may be a wider variety of plant and animal species than found in a uniform forest containing one ecotype, no matter how diverse that ecotype is.

Good Forestry = Good Environment

Good forest management should equal good wildlife management and, indeed, good management for the environment as a whole. A forest is a dynamic system, always changing. In fact, keeping a forest in one particular state requires expenditures in effort and dollars. With a few exceptions, the kaleidoscopic mosaic of

A managed forest is similar to the situation that might occur as a result of the ebb and flow of natural processes, although on a condensed scale.

Our society and the quality of life we have become accustomed to is dependent on a flow of affordable forest products. We have also had a long love affair with wildlife in this country. Over the past several years, our society has come to prize other inhabitants of the forest and other forest values as well. We all are aware that vigorously growing forest consume carbon dioxide, reduce the prospects for global warming, and produce oxygen for us to breathe. We know the value of healthy and protected watersheds in soil and water conservation, but we seem to be losing appreciation for the roles that forest products play in our everyday lives. From the morning newspaper to toilet tissue, from fine furniture to our homes themselves, our lives revolve around wood and wood products. These products don't originate in the back of the grocery store or at the building supply outlet. They come from a dynamic renewable natural resource that, with thoughtful management, can supply those products forever. Those same forests can and will, simultaneously, supply us with recreational opportunities, clean air and water, and a rich wildlife resource.

If you have any questions about this subject matter please contact Dr. Jim Armstrong, Wildlife Biologist, Extension Coordinator and Professor, Auburn University, ACES or Dr. Mark Smith, Wildlife Biologisit, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor, Auburn University, ACES.