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P.O. Box 1864
Oregon City, OR 97045

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Managing Private Forests for Timber and Wildlife Habitat

Privately owned forests contribute many benefits to our society. Two of the most important benefits are the jobs and income they provide for numerous members of our society, and also the habitat they provide for numerous species of fish and wildlife. Since many of the private forestlands in the west are at lower elevations, they are also very important as winter range habitat for big game. The availability of quality forage in the winter months is one of the greatest limiting factors of wildlife populations. By providing more winter forage we can increase carrying capacity for wildlife, livestock, or both.

Private forests are owned by a wide variety of individuals and corporations with many different management interests. However, many landowners today share the common goal of deriving income from their timber, as well as providing quality habitat for wildlife. Some desire quality habitat simply for the wildlife’s sake, others know that improved habitat means more game animals and bigger antlers, which means better hunting. Better hunting usually equals higher income for outfitters and guides.

This article describes some techniques, which can be used by private landowners interested in managingtheir property for better timber production, and better wildlife habitat.

When landowners are interested in managing their property for timber and wildlife on a long-term basis, one of the greatest tools they can have is a Forest Management Plan. First of all, a Forest Management Plan will identify the goals of the landowner, and will describe the resources available on the property. Then the plan will discuss how the resources such as timber, elk, deer, fish, water, etc. will be managed through time to meet the landowners goals. The beauty of these plans is that they frequently identify problems and opportunities, which can be managed to produce more income and improved habitat.

With an approved Forest Management Plan in place, and sometimes without, a landowner has the ability to apply for cost share money to pay for activities which enhance forests and wildlife habitat, such as tree planting, grass seeding, control of undesireable vegetation, prescribed burning, stream enhancement, etc. These funds are available through various private, state and federal programs. Public agencies such as the Farm Service Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and state Fish & Wildlife departments administer the various public programs. A small sample of private conservation organizations which have cost share programs are the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation and Trout Unlimited. It is important to note that these cost share programs come and go according to the funding a particular organization has, so it is important to check with as many sources as possible when seeking cost share money.

Wildlife has four basic requirements, which need to be addressed when managing forests: food, water, cover, and space. The following management techniques can be used by landowners to improve wildlife habitat on their property regardless of the size of their land.

There are many benefits to forests and wildlife, which come from commercial thinning. First of all, there is income to the landowner from the logs produced. And when thinned correctly, the growth rate and nutrients available to the remaining trees is increased. More forage is available for wildlife after thinning since the forest canopy has been opened, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of grasses and forbs. Since fire has been removed from many forest ecosystems, logging often provides the ground disturbance necessary to provide a seed bed for new grasses, shrubs, and forbs. Commercial thinning often also makes it possible to prescribe a controlled underburn, since many of the ladder fuels have been removed which will keep the fire on the ground and allow it to creep along at a low intensity. Forage production for wildlife is often greatly increased after a low intensity fire has burned off old woody plants and debris, creating a seedbed where new plant life can flourish, and woody plants are rejuvenated.

Pre-commercially thinning trees that are young, unmerchantable and growing too densely also benefits wildlife and forests. Cutting the surplus trees increases available nutrients to the remaining trees and gives them the physical space needed to grow to their fullest potential.

After performing any type of commercial or pre-commercial thinning it is often possible to seed in grasses & forbs. Applying a mix of grasses & forbs to areas with exposed soil will increase the forage production within forests. So while these forests are providing hiding and thermal cover they can also provide forage. This should increase the total amount of available forage for wildlife on a given property, an important factor to consider, if the propertyis winter range for big game. Increasing the quantity and quality of forage will also likely cause more frequent use of an area by wildlife. This could be particularly important if you are trying to attract more big game to use, and stay, on your property.

As forests grow and the tree canopies start to grow together, they slowly shade out many types of grasses & forbs. So the forage production does slowly diminish until the area is thinned again, or a clearcut harvest occurs. What types of grasses should be used is a site-specific question which should be addressed for every different property. Some common grass varieties that are preferred by elk for example are fescue, blue bunch grasses, and orchardgrass. Some common forbs include clover, lupines, and trefoil.

Pruning trees is another technique that can enhance timber production and value, as well as wildlife habitat. Pruning increases the future quality and value of the timber when it is harvested. Pruning also makes it easier for animals to travel through the forest. Forage production can also be increased, since there are less limbs to block sunlight from reaching the forest floor.

Wildlife security is a very important factor to consider when planning forest management activities. If animals do not feel secure in an area they will not utilize whatever forage may be available to its full potential, this essentially decreases the effectiveness of the property for attracting and supporting wildlife. There are a variety of things that can be done to increase security for wildlife.

Obviously, the more secure an animal feels, the more likely they are to use open areas where forage is typically abundant. Placing gates on roads is a very effective way to reduce vehicle traffic. But in areas where it is not possible to close roads, maintaining a visual buffer from the road will increase wildlife security. For example, if an area is selected for a clearcut harvest, leaving an uncut strip of timber along any well-traveled road will provide a visual buffer, and increased security. After the trees in the clearcut area have grown tall enough to provide hiding cover, one may harvest the trees that were left in the strip. When performing commercial thinning along well-traveled roads, leaving the timber slightly denser near the road will provide a visual buffer also.

Clearcuts, though unpopular with many people, do provide a significant source of forage for big game and other wildlife for many years after they are cut. The problem with clearcuts is they usually require an access road. To increase security and allow full utilization of the available forage, blocking road access is very important. Creating irregular shaped borders will also increase the security of the clearcut. Irregular edges will create more visual buffer than a clearcut that is a perfect square for example.

Leaving scattered large trees in a clearcut area provides a source of future snags, downed logs, nesting sites, and a small amount of cover. The aesthetics of this is appealing to many people as well. Leaving widely scattered, very small brush clumps in clearcut areas is beneficial to many species also. For example, in western Oregon and Washington, Roosevelt elk and ruffed grouse utilize vine maple clumps extensively in the winter months. The clumps provide forage and hiding cover.

Creating ponds where roads cross very small streams creates more riparian habitat, and increases water availability for wildlife. The ponds also provide a source of water for water trucks in the event of a wildfire. Maintaining riparian zones along streams is extremely important for wildlife. Riparian areas support a variety of plant life that is critical to many species, and does not grow on upland areas. Most states allow limited timber harvesting in riparian zones. When trees are harvested it is important to fell the trees away from the stream and out of the riparian zone. This technique minimizes disturbance to plant life in the area.

During timber harvest, a considerable amount of slash is usually accumulated. Removing as much of the slash as possible from the harvest area increases the amount of exposed soil where improved forage production may then occur. One way to remove the slash efficiently is with whole tree yarding. This means that the whole tree, limbs and all, is hauled to the log landing. The limbs are then removed at the landing where they are piled and can possibly be burned later.

Another method of removing the slash is to cut the limbs off the tree in the harvest area, and then perform a controlled broadcast burn. This type of burn, when conducted under the proper conditions will eliminate the majority of the slash, recycle nutrients quickly, and prepare an excellent seed bed for grasses, forbs, shrubs, and a new forest. Forage production is often significantly improved following this type of burn. This type of burn also reduces the risk of wildfire in the future. If a wildfire should occur, it will burn much less intensively since much of the fuel was removed during a controlled, safe situation.

Maintaining a variety of forest conditions on a given property will ensure that a variety of habitat conditions will be maintained over time. For example, clearcut harvesting is a significant component of many landowners’ forest management plans. Harvesting on a small percentage of the property each year, and replanting, will eventually create a forest with many different age classes, many different habitats, and a continual supply of high quality forage for many different species. Many of our western forests contain trees of all ages, commonly called uneven-aged. Selective harvesting which removesindividual trees from several different age classes will ensure that the uneven-aged structure, and a variety of habitat conditions, is maintained in these forests.

The properties that I manage using some or all of these techniques are a win-win-win situation, for people, timber, and wildlife. People have income from the forest, timber productivity is maintained at high levels, and wildlife flourishes, which creates high quality hunting opportunities. When practicing wise forest/habitat management, we can have our cake and eat it too!

Tony Pranger
Professional Forester

© 2011 Elkhorn Forestry, Inc.