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It All Starts With a Habitat Plan

Welcome to the 1st edition of the Wildlife Habitat Builders' Blog! It is my goal to bring you scientific, real-world facts to help you design and improve the wildlife habitat where you spend your days. I will also be giving you the details of the projects that I am doing on my own farm. I have a degree in wildlife biology and have worked for state and federal wildlife agencies over the last 30 years, as well as spending now close to the last 10 years growing fruit trees primarily for sale to habitat builders like yourself. I love to learn and experiment. Science has always been my favorite subject and how science combines with hunting --- building habitat --- just makes both worlds even better in my book! You will not see me promoting any particular product or brand. I am going to refer to products that I use merely as a little guidance in helping you to select the right ones for yourself. There are countless suppliers of equipment, trees and seeds on the marketplace, myself included. If you ever find an interesting, science based article you feel like sharing with others feel free to email it to me. I am sure I will be interested in reading it and passing along its entirety to the other readers on here or at least providing some of the highlights. With that being said I am glad to have you here! So let's build some habitat.

To be successful with any habitat improvement project you need to start with a plan. Whether you design that plan or have a habitat consultant come up with that plan. Starting without a plan means you will likely spend countless hours and dollars making changes that don't move you any closer to your long-term goals. Each of us is probably limited by the amount of time and money we can devote to improving our land. This becomes even more important if you are merely leasing or renting land and you have the consent of the landowner to make some simple changes. Some changes you make to your property may take years if not decades it to reverse once you have implemented them. Tilling up a patch of native warm season grass to put in a food plot takes a very short amount of time, reseeding native warm season grass and then waiting for it to reestablish itself takes at least a few years. Clearing a patch of timber may take you a week, but replanting it and waiting for it to reach maturity will take decades. Add in the cost of the labor and materials and it becomes a long-term, costly mistake. That doesn't mean you should not tackle habitat projects because you are afraid of doing something wrong. It just means that having a plan that outlines your goals is a wise first step in order to maximize the use of your time, resources and money as well as assuring it will become a successful project.

What is your goal or goals for your property. Are you looking to improve the deer hunting on your property? Looking to increase the quality of your deer herd? Looking to increase other game species numbers (quail, pheasant, turkey)? Depending on your goal you can then take an in depth look as to what is currently preventing you from reaching those goals. Some deficiencies are easy to fix, both in time and money, others may require large investments of time and money.

The primary goals for my own farm are to increase deer, turkey and quail populations. With the increasing populations we also want to increase quality hunting opportunities. Especially quality hunting opportunities for kids. A secondary goal would be to increase the age structure of the bucks on our place hopefully leading to higher scoring bucks. I am primarily an archery hunter, so keeping that in mind dictates where good stand locations might be created. The biggest habitat projects on our farm consist of:

1. Timber stand improvement (TSI), removing "trash" trees to promote better growth of desirable existing trees and promote natural seedling establishment of desirable tree species.

2. Renovating large areas of cool season, sod forming grass and reestablishing native warm season grasses and forbs.

3. Establishing soft mast trees and food plots to supplement native food sources, especially from early November through Spring green up.

4. Establishing and maintaining nesting and brood rearing habitat for the turkeys and quail.

Good wildlife habitat consists of space, food, cover, and water. If you do not have all four of these things in close proximity to each other, you can't expect to maximize your wildlife populations. Depending on the size of the property you may or may not be able to provide all of those things. Being able to "utilize" what your neighbors already have is beneficial in increasing the overall attractiveness of your property. Maybe your property is large enough that you can supply all the critical needs. However, how each of those pieces relate to each other is also very important to consider. It's important to remember that all wildlife species prefer to use the least amount of energy necessary in order to obtain food while being able to find shelter from the weather and secure cover from predators. Some species may also have additional habitat requirements that are key to their survival (brood rearing cover for quail and turkeys).

On our farm I'm doing the most I can to provide the needs for deer, turkeys, and quail in an area just slightly under 90 acres. Unfortunately, my adjoing neighbors are only contributing some bedding areas for deer, a limited amount of native food (acorns and woody browse) and possibly some summer habitat for foraging turkeys (open cattle pastures). My neighbors are not contributing any habitat that will benefit quail. Keeping in mind that the typical home range for a covey of Northern Bobwhite Quail averages 20-40 acres I need to keep in mind that all of their life requirements need to be filled in a relatively small area. Ideal properties for deer and turkey have many of their life requirements in close proximity as well, though their home ranges are larger. If your property is suitable for wintering turkeys but lacks nesting and brood rearing cover, it is not going to be a very huntable farm for Spring gobblers.

I feel that being able to visualize your habitat plan is essential to developing a well thought out plan. There are many resources to help you visualize your plan. From Google Earth to OnX Maps, two of the most common imagery sources, you can get a birds eye view of what habitat exists on your property and your neighbors. I personally use OnX Maps merely for the fact that it also has a number of features that allow you mark/draw on the screen and it saves that work for you in your account.

Getting a accurate picture of your existing habitat from an aerial perspective is extremely helpful. Seeing how the pieces of your habitat interact with each other and how your property interacts with your neighbors is the first step in developing a plan. Keep in mind aerial photos may not be up to date and may be inaccurate. Firsthand knowledge, "boots on the ground", of your property is going to give you a better feel for how accurate the map is as well as native vegetation composition. In my next post I am going to take a more in depth look of analyzing your aerial imagery to begin laying out your habitat plan.

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Adam Noll
Adam Noll
Jan 06

Great opening blog post! Do you have any plans to do a post on "junk" trees for wildlife (deer, turkey, quail, etc.) versus "junk" trees for timber harvest? I know we have a lot of shagbark hickory and eastern red cedar around our family farm, for instance, so a post on different trees and their values based on landowner goals and wildlife would be helpful, I bet.

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I appreciate your comment. I will get into timber management a lot more some time in the future. Just briefly in terms of the 2 species you mentioned, Shagbark Hickory has timber value on larger diameter trees and even Eastern Red Cedar (ERC) to some extent, though the cedar would likely only have a value to a local logger or sawmill operator. I am sure Shagbark nuts are probably eaten to some extent by wildlife species, but they are not normally planted for that purpose. ERC can provide some thermal cover in very cold temperatures and the berries are consumed by some bird species. though that leads to a problem. The big problem with ERC can be quite invasive…

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