Making the Most of Your Woodlot
by Rick Horton, then RGS MN Regional Biologist
Wildlife Management Tools
|Fire||Fire is a natural element of forest disturbance that once shaped our land. Properly and safely applied, fire can help maintain grassy openings, swamps, brushy areas and can increase browse nutritional quality. The best times to burn are late fall and early spring (before bird nesting begins).|
|Logging||In the absence of wildfire, we must use commercial logging to reset the successional clock and create young forest habitats. Young forests offer abundant food and cover for a host of species. Some forest types must be replanted, but most will regenerate naturally if properly cut. Small block aspen management provides ideal habitat for ruffed grouse, woodcock, deer, hares and many songbirds. Young patches in an otherwise old forest can greatly increase wildlife diversity.|
|Planting||Dense young conifer plantations can offer some thermal protection for a time, but are of less value as they age. Rotational planting, or planting a mix of species can increase a conifer stand's wildlife value. Grouse, deer and bears readily eat clover planted in forest roads and clearings. Fruiting shrubs like dogwood, mountain ash, sumac, hawthorn and wild plum can be planted along the north and east edges of clearings to soften the edge effect and provide food and cover for many wild animals. Hard mast trees, like oak, hickory and black walnut can provide a late fall high-energy food source for deer, turkey, bear and squirrels.|
|Mowing||Mowing old fields and wildlife openings with a tractor mounted brush cutter can maintain them indefinitely. Openings are critical for woodcock, deer and many songbirds.|
|Snags and Den Trees||Dead and dying trees are very important for woodpeckers, squirrels, bats, furbearers and many other animals. Leave most dead trees or den trees standing during a forestry operation, with a goal to have 2-3 per acre. You can create snags by girdling undesirable trees in your stands.|
|Brush and Rock Piles||Making brush or rock piles can be a fun and rewarding effort. In fact, it's best if you make a brush pile on top of a rock pile to benefit weasels, rabbits, grouse and other animals. Bears are known to hibernate under large brush piles.|
|Food Plots||Agricultural crops planted or left standing near woodlots can offer an important source of winter food and cover for turkeys, pheasants, deer, squirrels and other critters. Corn, sorghum, clover and millet are favorites. Food plots must be treated like gardens to grow successfully. For best results, perform a soil test, correct pH and fertilizer imbalances, seed properly and control weeds.|
|Nest boxes||You can erect nest boxes and platforms if dead and den trees are in short supply in your woodlot. Specific designs are available to make boxes for wood ducks, squirrels, bats, bluebirds, raptors and many other animals.|
|Grazing||Light grazing can be used to maintain open areas when burning and mowing isn't an option. Rotate animals often to reduce compaction and leave browse for wildlife. Restricting grazing until after July 1 will reduce negative impacts to ground nesting birds.|
Many species of animals live in brushy areas, including sharp-tailed grouse, deer, and woodcock. However, unmanaged brush can get too large to offer adequate cover or can be taken over by forest. Brush can be regenerated with controlled burning, winter shearing or mowing. A dozer with a sharp blade clips off stems without disturbing the root system, so that new shoots can come up from the roots.
Most deer hunters in Minnesota own, or hunt in, the woodlots that dot the agricultural region that makes up the southern 2/3 of Minnesot a. Woodlots, by definition, are discrete blocks of forested land surrounded by land used for other purposes - agriculture, development, etc. They range in size from a few acres to several sections and from the air may appear like green, woody islands. These islands meet critically important habitat requirements for many wild animals, but are challenging to maintain and enhance. Actively managing woodlots can greatly increase their value to wildlife, thus increasing the landowners' hunting success and enjoyment of wildlife.
The first step in developing a management scheme for your woods is to set some realistic goals. Do you want to increase the deer herd? Maybe have more ducks around? Perhaps you want to increase the overall diversity of wildlife to increase your enjoyment of the property. You probably can't maintain a year round deer population of 30 animals on a 40-acre oak forest. However, you can provide year round cover for deer so that the animals that live in your area stop by more frequently. In setting your goals you need to assess your situation. Think of where your property lies and what its capabilities are. You wouldn't manage for turkeys in Ely any more than you would manage for spruce grouse in Blue Earth County. Climate, soils and past land use determine the makeup of your plant communities, which, in turn determine the wildlife composition of an area.
It is important to learn as much as possible about your wild animals of interest. All species need food, water, cover and space. If one of these is in short supply it will limit local animal abundance. Providing the "limiting factor" often leads to an increase in that species until another limiting factor controls the population. For example, your may not have any old snag trees near your pond, so you see few wood ducks. By building and distributing wood duck boxes, you can increase the number of birds at your pond, but only to a degree. At some level there is not enough space for more ducks and you will reach a saturation point. Other factors in animals lives are more complex. Some species, like grouse and hares, exhibit a 10-year cycle of abundance. Intensive grouse management can result in 6-8 breeding pairs per 40 acres during high phases of the cycle. However, you may be disappointed in your results if you don't realize you are in the midst of a low cycle. Many other species are seasonally abundant because they migrate, hibernate, or use other habitats during winter. You may provide excellent spring, summer and fall deer habitat, yet see no sign of them in winter as they move to traditional deer yards. The more you know about animals, the better prepared you are to meet their needs.
Increasing the vegetative diversity of a woodlot is the single most effective way to increase the number of animals utilizing the area. An 80 acre stand of mature sugar maples will support far fewer species and numbers of animals than 80 acres composed of a maple stand, a young aspen stand, a patch of conifer, a pond or creek, a wildlife opening and a food plot. You will meet the annual and life cycle needs of many species by creating a number of different habitats.
An aerial photo will allow you to see how your woodlot fits on the landscape. Look at the surrounding properties. What are your neighbor's doing with their forest? Do they offer species something that you can't provide? What can you offer that they don't have? Woodlots are often separated from one another by unforested property that is inhospitable to many species and can create a barrier to animals moving from one woodlot to another. Smaller critters won't venture far from secure cover that shields them from predators. Also, the distance between woodlots may exceed the typical movements of some animals, or in their random movements, they simply don't find the new habitat. Are there corridors connecting the stands? Are there barriers to wildlife movement that can be addressed? You can create or maintain corridors like creek bottoms, fence rows, shelterbelts, power lines or contour strips between isolated habitats to ensure that animals can move between them. Standing row crops often serve as corridors during the growing season. A landowner can leave a few rows of standing corn to connect two woodlots that will serve as a corridor as well as a winter food source for deer, turkeys, raccoons, squirrels, pheasants and songbirds.
There are many tools (see SIDEBAR) you can use to create and enhance wildlife habitat on your property. Knowing which to use and how to apply them will help you successfully meet your property management goals. Some treatments, like timber harvest, may generate income. Others may cost you money, like purchasing seed, trees or shrubs to plant. Sometimes you will have to make trade-offs in favor of wildlife, like leaving a dead tree as a wildlife snag rather than cut it up for firewood. A written management plan can become a living document for you and your family to follow for years, increasing their wildlife enjoyment for generations. Contact your local DNR Forestry office and ask for details on the Forest Stewardship Program and the Sustainable Forest Incentives Program.