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Introduction to Habitat Management

It's hard these days to read any article about hunting and not read something about the importance of habitat management. Wildlife biologists and managers frequently stress habitat management ? but what is habitat? I have noticed through talking to numerous landowners, managers, and hunters in Mississippi that most people know they should be managing their habitat, but few know what this really means, much less how to do it. As a matter of fact, when I ask most hunting clubs what they are doing to manage their habitat they respond by saying that they plant food plots. Although valuable, planting food plots is not a "magic bullet" and it does not replace the importance of managing the natural habitat.

It is my goal through this column to provide a detailed description of various habitat management techniques and to explain how, when, and where they should be used ? and more importantly, why they are necessary. But before we begin looking at different techniques we must first understand what we are managing.

Generally, habitat can be described as all of the food, water, and cover resources that wildlife require to survive. These three resources must be available in sufficient amounts to maintain a healthy wildlife population. Habitat requirements are different for each species of wildlife, although some species have very similar habitat requirements. For example, wild turkey and bobwhite quail occur and thrive in very similar habitats.

Habitat Management 1
Habitat management is often necessary
to provide year-round, high-quality forage.

Food is a very important part of wildlife habitat because animals require proper nutrition to remain healthy, grow, reproduce, raise offspring, resist diseases, and escape predators. Different wildlife species require different food resources, and these foods often change seasonally. For example, a deer will eat mostly high-quality forbs, legumes, and browse plants during the spring. As summer progresses, these higher-quality plants become less available and deer shift their diet more towards moderate-quality browse such as shrubs and vines. During the fall, a deer's diet may shift to acorns when they are available, and then shift again to browse and even some grasses during the winter. Even when food is available it must be the right kind of food to meet the nutrition demands of wildlife. For example, a pine forest with lots of sweetgum trees at ground level may look "green" and healthy (see photos), but deer don't like to eat sweetgum! Thus, it's easy to see the importance of managing habitats to provide year-round, high-quality forage.

Water is required by wildlife for digestion, maintaining body temperature, and other life processes. Adequate amounts of freestanding water (springs, creeks, farm ponds, lakes, etc.) are generally not a concern for most of Mississippi's wildlife because of our abundant rainfall, and some animals can even get all of their water needs from eating succulent green plants and dew on leaves.

Cover is a habitat's ability to provide the protection that animals need to survive. It shelters animals from bad weather conditions and conceals them from predators while they eat, sleep, and care for their young. Cover needs are different for each species; for example, bobwhite quail require grasses and forbs at ground level to protect them from avian predators while they forage whereas a raccoon can live practically anywhere, including cities and garbage dumps!

In order for wildlife to thrive, each habitat resource must be available within the area used by that species. Unfortunately, a forest doesn't always provide the right amounts of the needed habitat resources on its own to support the number of animals that we want them to.

Habitat Management 2
An unmanaged forest may look "green" and healthy, but the food value
may be minimal due to dense layers of undesirable plants like sweetgum.

For instance, I recently worked with a hunting club located in the pine belt of Mississippi that is devoted to turkey hunting. We know that turkeys require a somewhat open layer of grasses and forbs along the ground in which their poults can safely forage for high-protein insects and plants. However, their pine forest was too thick with undesirable hardwood trees (like sweetgum) so the desired plant communities could not develop. Thus, they needed to apply habitat management practices such as selective herbicides, prescribed fire, creating wildlife openings, and fertilizing native vegetation to create the right conditions for turkeys to thrive.

The good news is that one management practice may benefit more than one species of wildlife. In the turkey hunting club example, the plant communities created by our management not only benefited turkeys, but quail coveys also increased due to better nesting habitat, deer now had higher quality food sources, and certain bird species like Bachman's sparrows and pine warblers increased in abundance. Additionally, the timber value of their pine trees increased because we removed so many sweetgum trees that were competing for growing space!

The purpose of habitat management is to improve existing habitat to benefit wildlife. We can often increase the amount of wildlife in an area, improve their quality and health, and encourage them to use areas that they currently are not using just by manipulating the habitat. Unfortunately, there are still limitations to what we can do. We will never be able to produce a Boone & Crockett buck behind every tree or enough doves flying to shade out the sun!

It all comes down to one thing - soil. An area's ability to produce quality wildlife is dependent on its soil fertility. Higher-quality soils, such as in the Delta, will generally produce larger deer than the sandy, poor-quality soils of the Gulf Coast. But within each of Mississippi's nine soil regions, certain habitat management techniques can be used to improve the quality and quantity of wildlife in that area.

Over the next several issues, I will present numerous habitat management practices that you may wish to use on your property. My goal is to simply explain in a step-by-step process how, when, and where these management practices should be done, why they are necessary, and which wildlife species will benefit from them. We will cover creating wildlife openings, identifying and fertilizing native vegetation, disking within thinned pine stands, strip disking in fields, rotational mowing, roadside and right-of-way management, timber thinning, prescribed fire, creating oak openings, Quality Vegetation Management, upland hardwood management, and cost-share programs available to private landowners. Hopefully, these articles will provide landowners, managers, and hunters with the information they need to more effectively manage our wildlife resources in Mississippi.

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