Habitat Management

Wood turtle 
Karner blue butterfly 
Top to bottom: Wood turtle by Mike Marchand; Karner blue butterfly by Lindsay Webb; Woodcock by Richard Baetsen/US Fish & Wildlife Service

Why is habitat management important?
Many types of habitats have evolved with regular natural disturbance, such as seasonal flooding, beaver impoundment, fire, defoliation due to insect outbreak, and ice storm damage. For centuries, humans have also been significant agents of habitat disturbance, sometimes mimicking natural disturbances and helping to maintain or enhance wildlife diversity while at other times degrading habitats and eliminating species altogether.

During pre-colonial times, Native Americans commonly used fire to enhance hunting opportunities, improve travel through forests, and enhance berry production, among other things. This activity probably also provided habitat for Karner blue butterflies and eastern hognose snakes. When colonists cleared woodland for pasture and crops, these newly open lands provided habitat for species such as eastern meadowlarks and wood turtles, while the populations of woodland wildlife, such as fisher and moose, declined. As pasture and croplands became abandoned, new young forest and shrubland habitats took their place, which provided ideal habitat for species like New England cottontail and American woodcock. All of these different land uses provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife species.

Today, New Hampshire has a wide variety of habitats (click here to learn more about these habitats) that provide food and shelter to thousands of insects, and hundreds of birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and mammals. To maintain this biodiversity, some habitats will always require management.

What is habitat management?
Some habitats require periodic natural disturbances to maintain their unique characteristics. By “managing” the land, we can often mimic these natural disturbances in places where the disturbance has been eliminated or diminished. Additionally, development has significantly reduced the diversity of habitats in some areas of the state, and managing undeveloped lands helps to maintain this diversity. Management techniques that can be used to mimic natural disturbances include prescribed burning, mowing, timber harvesting, removing non-native species, and planting native species. Prescribed burning mimics natural fires started by lightning. Mowing and forest cutting can help promote early successional habitats that would naturally occur after floods, beaver impoundments, and hurricanes or storms. While these natural disturbances still occur today, they generally occur at a much smaller scale, especially in more heavily human populated areas. Wildfires are put out before they become a threat to human infrastructure, flooding is controlled with dams, and nuisance beavers are controlled.

field and forest
Field and Forest by David Govatski

Soil, topography, elevation, climate, and aspect influence the type of vegetation that can grow in a certain area. These factors determine the type and distribution of habitats that can occur across the landscape. Natural disturbances and human activities then modify the vegetation structure and composition to create the actual habitat conditions to which wildlife populations respond.

Pine Barrens habitat, for example, has characteristically sandy, nutrient poor soil. Only certain species -- like pitch pine, little bluestem grass, low-bush blueberry, and scrub oak -- can survive in such conditions. Without prescribed burning in Pine Barrens, the leaf and stick litter on the ground accumulates, breaks down, and provides more nutrients in the soil. With more nutrients, other plant species can establish and take over (shade out) the native Pine Barrens species. Management actions, such as prescribed fires, burn up the leaf and stick litter, eliminate the non-Pine Barrens plants, maintain openings, and set the clock back on succession. Pitch pine, low-bush blueberry, little bluestem grass, and scrub oak have all evolved to survive this environment by having strategies that help them survive a fire either above ground (as the pitch pine tree) or below ground by having deep roots that help them not only survive a surface fire, but also reach the few essential nutrients and water underground.

pitch pine
Pitch pine trees have adapted to periodic fires by having thick bark to protect the core of the tree from fire, semi-serotinous cones that release seeds after intense heat, and by growing epicormic shoots (as seen in picture above) to help compensate for the needle loss after a fire. Photo by Lindsay Webb

Timing is also very important, especially when managing grasslands for wildlife species. Many bird, reptile, and butterfly species use grassland habitats and are vulnerable to mowing at certain times of the year. While adult birds can easily fly away, it is their ground nests and chicks that can be harmed by mowing. Adult butterflies can also fly away, but are vulnerable to management equipment when they are in their other life stages. Reptiles may be able to move, but not fast enough to escape an approaching tractor. Mammals also use grassland habitats, but are usually more mobile than these other species. It is important to recognize how species may be impacted by management and to reduce harmful impacts to them during habitat management operations.

prescribed burn
Wildland firefighters burn a grassland to reduce shrubs and promote grasses for Karner blue butterflies and Grasshopper Sparrows on the Concord Municipal Airport. Photo by Heidi Holman

Click here to download “Importance of Disturbance in Habitat Management” (PDF) from USDA-NRCS

Why don’t we let nature takes its course?

Disturbances that historically maintained some habitats have been greatly suppressed for a variety of reasons. Forest fires are now quickly extinguished to prevent damage to structures. Dams are built and maintained to prevent large scale flooding in residential areas, or to generate electricity.

Agricultural activity in the state has been greatly reduced because of better soil productivity elsewhere in the nation, which leaves old field areas to revert back to forest or to be developed. All of this results in depleted populations of wildlife that require disturbance-dependent habitats.

Shrublands are a habitat that will always need management. If left alone, these habitats will eventually grow into forests with tall trees. Some shrubland habitats are being maintained along power line corridors, where every three to five years the vegetation is cut down before it can get in the way of power lines. These habitats are especially important for species such as eastern towhee and white-tailed deer.

brush cutting
Brush cutting by Lindsay Webb

white-tailed deer
White-tailed deer by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Development pressure on habitats is also a large threat, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, such as shorelands. With every new building or parking lot comes a loss of habitat for wildlife. There needs to be a balance between development and conservation if we are to maintain the biodiversity in New Hampshire.

What can landowners do?

Here are some things you can do to improve the wildlife habitat on your land:

  • Consult a UNH Cooperative Extension County Forester or Extension Wildlife Biologist. There is no cost for this consultation and they can help you identify wildlife habitats on your property, provide tips on how to enhance those habitats, provide you with a list of private consulting foresters, and point you towards programs that can provide funding for management. Forester info: http://extension.unh.edu/Forestry/FORSTEW.htm

Steps you can do with assistance from a professional forester or wildlife biologist:

  • Identify the habitats on your land and develop an on-the-ground habitat map for your property. This will be useful when deciding the appropriate prescription for your land. The Wildlife Action Plan wildlife habitat land cover maps can help to get you started. These maps were created at a statewide scale and therefore may not be detailed enough for your land. Click here to learn how these predictive maps were modeled and where to access these maps.
  • Read the WAP species profiles to get a better understanding of their distribution in the state and their threats.
    Species Profiles:
  • Review the habitat management resources below to identify potential management actions.
  • Consider developing a management plan for your property that will incorporate all of the information listed above with the help of a natural resource professional knowledgeable about NH’s wildlife and the Wildlife Action Plan.
  • If management is employed on your land, then conduct a post-management wildlife and vegetation inventory to track management success.

Habitat Management Resources

The best management practices for habitat management change as new techniques and studies are conducted. It is always smart to keep up with the current literature. Here is a short list of habitat management practices books and pamphlets.

  • Landowner’s Guide to Wildlife Habitat by Richard M. DeGraaf, published by University of Vermont Press, University Press of New England, 2005
  • New England Wildlife: Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution by Richard M. DeGraaf and Mariko Yamasaki, published by University Press of New England, 2000
  • Technical Guide to Forest Wildlife Habitat Management in New England by Richard DeGraaf, Mariko Yamasaki, William B. Leak, and Anna M. Lester, published by University of Vermont Press, University Press of New England, 2007.

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