Why is habitat management important?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
Steps you can do with assistance from a professional forester or wildlife biologist:
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.
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