Wildlife management in its minimal form is simply habitat manipulation.
Providing the right combination of habitat component, structure and arrangement will maximize the wildlife species intended to occupy each parcel of land. A balance of what the landowner desires and how much money and effort is needed to achieve that desire can be difficult to ascertain.
In wildlife management, quantity is as equally important as quality. Providing appropriate and abundant levels of food, water, shelter and space in direct relation to the needs of desired wildlife species is the core in creating productive, successful wildlife habitat. The first part of this series will focus on food and water requirements, the second will detail shelter and space.
Providing nutrition for desired wildlife species should be considered carefully. Biological carrying capacities (the number of species or the size of a population a given environment can support without manipulation) must be examined carefully as a population size can easily become detrimental to both the wildlife (e.g. starvation, disease) and its immediate habitat (e.g. overbrowsing, long-term alteration, fragmentation). Creating year-round availability of quality food should not create an “artificial” carrying capacity by allowing wildlife to persist in numbers the habitat cannot support should a drastic change occur, such as ending feeding programs or eliminating natural predators.
A great example of this is the ability of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) to increase reproductive rates or fawn production based on nutritional availability. Under ideal food supply conditions, white-tailed does can produce litters of fawns twice a season, with a higher instance of twins and triplets. The first year fawns can also achieve sexual maturity that same year under these circumstances. With such a rapidly growing population of these browsers, the habitat must be able to support the existing herd as well as its increasing young. Should a hard winter or poor growing season produce a lack of browse, limiting food availability, the herd passes its carrying capacity and can no longer be supported by its habitat.
Feeding programs, such as providing commercial feed and hay, create this false carrying capacity and, should they be discontinued, can lead to poor health and eventually mortality to both wildlife and habitat. Principal elements of nutritional values, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and overall digestibility need to be taken into accord and tailored to the specific wildlife the landowner wishes to attract.
Food types are as varied as the wildlife that landowners wish to support. Mast and fruit producing trees can be planted and relatively easily maintained as a self-sustaining food source. Acorns, tree nuts, pine seeds and samara provide good nutrition and year-round abundance (fall acorns, spring samara) especially in periods of low browse availability. However, geographic location will dictate which plant species will be successful and beneficial to wildlife. Obviously, the planting of eastern forage species in the western U.S. would not be as beneficial to local wildlife populations as, perhaps native species would, and vice versa.
Selecting native vegetative species for native wildlife species is nearly a guaranteed homerun, and as a general rule, the more diverse the forage the more successful the landowner will be. Monocultures (large stands of single specie vegetation) invite disease and widespread failure should negative conditions, such as weather, occur. With vegetation diversity comes habitat diversity.
Food crops such as rye, corn, wheat and sorghum provide valuable nutrition for game birds such as northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) and ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) and waterfowl like Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallard (Anus platyrhynchos). Several commercially available grains or “wildlife feeds” can be purchased however their use should be again carefully considered in relation to local carrying capacities. Local fish and wildlife agencies either federal or state and cooperative extension programs can be consulted to determine the best management practice for these crops on each land parcel.
Planting vegetation and maintaining current species can be a more long-term and cost effective method in creating food availability. Rejuvenating old apple trees, planting sedge, bluegrass, blueberries, dogwood, pine, beech, aspen and persimmon are relatively less time consuming than agricultural crop production and can provide other key habitat requirements such as nesting and cover opportunities.
Providing water can be the most difficult task in habitat management. Conversely having too much water can be equally frustrating, however in current climatic changes throughout the U.S., the instance of drought seems to be taking center stage. Water is a unique habitat requirement in that each wildlife species uses it in varying ways. Open water or flowing water is an obvious necessity for waterfowl, riparian species and aquatic organism predators (e.g. otter, heron). Water needed as a dietary component is universal for all wildlife. This can be obtained through open and flowing water sources, as well as through ingestion of succulent vegetation (some succulents contain 90 percent water).
Designing water into habitat management can include creating ponds, potholes, irrigation and man-made structures such as “guzzlers” and waterers. The most important aspect to water should be its dependability and purity. Wildlife that utilize water sources come to depend on them and can be a contributing factor in population growth, just as artificial feeding programs can affect biological carrying capacity so can water availability. Contaminated water sources through pollution, sewage, and chemical applications have obvious and direct impacts on wildlife health. The addition of water, either as a habitat component or metabolic factor will greatly increase the health and diversity of wildlife for the landowner.