From the Archives of Ruffed Grouse Minnesota...
I'll be rotating articles to publish that are as current now as when they were first published. Keep checking this page to see more in the future.
Conservation planning for your land - how does it work?
Posted by Roger Marks on Wednesday, November 7, 2012
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
Do you find yourself asking How do I maximize production, maintain long term viability and leave something for the next generation? A conservation plan should be your first step. Resource professionals can provide you with options and assist you or your land manager in selecting the best combination of conservation practices to meet both natural resource needs and the land management goals of your operation.
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The Wildlife Benefits of Minnesota's Aspen Resource
Editor's Note: The following is a powerful testiment to the public's house on the value of young forests that I will leave posted on this page indefinitely.
Testimony Before the Minnesota House of Representatives
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, February 11, 2003
The Ruffed Grouse Society is a 501c3 non-profit conservation organization dedicated to improving the environment for ruffed grouse, woodcock and other forest wildlife. I am the Society's forest wildlife biologist and have been serving in that capacity for almost 4 years.
Minnesota contains a wide array of different forests, which in turn provide habitat for many animals. We need to maintain a balanced level of these diverse habitats in order to conserve overall biodiversity in the forested region of Minnesota. Young forests are an essential component of this biodiversity, supporting a unique suite of plant and animal species that evolved during the tens of thousands of years when forests naturally blew down, burned and grew back to forest. Both highly imperiled non-game species and game animals important to the state's sportsmen and women require young forests. Aspen forest is particularly valuable as it is one of the few deciduous hardwood types routinely regenerated through clearcutting to create dense young forest habitats. These habitats replicate the conditions that were previously created by wildfire. Minnesota is fortunate in that we have an abundance of aspen. Over 80% of the aspen in the eastern U.S. is in the Upper Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and over half of it is in Minnesota.
Ruffed grouse and American woodcock, two game species of immense importance to 150,000 Minnesota sportsmen and women, thrive in aspen forests. Minnesota is a premier destination for ruffed grouse hunting thanks to its abundant aspen resource. Sportsmen harvest an average of 600,000 birds annually, and as many as 1.2 million during the bird's cyclic peak of abundance. This is more than all other upland game bird and mammals combined, and equivalent to the duck harvest. We will never have an abundance of pheasants like South Dakota, ducks like North Dakota or turkeys like Missouri. However, folks in other states envy Minnesota's fantastic ruffed grouse hunting opportunities. The beauty of this situation is that we don't have to appropriate currently scarce funding to maintain this bounty. Forest management to create grouse habitat generates income. We simply need to maintain our aspen resource by properly regenerating it before it is lost forever.
We can best maintain our state's hunting heritage by providing everyone with ready access to game habitat and a reasonable expectation of success. Unfortunately, hunting is rapidly becoming a pay-to-play sport in many regions of the nation, and only the very wealthy are given access to hunting opportunities. Aspen forests and grouse hunting are the exception. Our abundance of public forested lands in northern Minnesota ensures that quality grouse hunting remains available for everyone, from the rich man with a fine 28 gauge side-by-side and a staunch English setter, to the local teenager with a single shot 12 gauge. This very fortunate situation is rapidly becoming unique in the country, if not the world.
Prior to European settlement windstorms, insects and forest fires shaped the landscape, creating a mixture of young and old forests. However, in the 21st Century we can no longer allow wildfire to shape the landscape, there are too many lives and livelihoods at risk. We must therefore create habitat for those animals that evolved with disturbance and need young forests to thrive. Commercial timber harvesting is the only economically and socially responsible method of doing so. While logging can never exactly mimic the effects of wildfire, it can be used to replicate the habitats created after fire. Properly applied clearcutting creates dense young stands of aspen, oak or jack pine that have an abundance of stems. Animals that use these thick, young forests are seeking shelter from predation or utilizing the abundance of nutritious, readily available food.
Aspen forests are unique in their ability to rapidly regenerate into a dense young forest following disturbance. Tens of thousands of sun-loving shoots emerge from the roots following fire or timber harvesting. These shoots grow so rapidly that they can reach 6 feet in height in just two growing seasons. They do not thrive in shade, so competition for sunlight causes many stems to die off as the stand ages. Within 40 years stands have reached their peak productivity and can be harvested. As the stand ages, stems continue to die from insects and disease, and other tree species grow in their shade, quickly taking over gaps in the canopy. If the stand is not regenerated by the time the last aspen falls, the aspen is lost and the forest is changed forever.
Aspen forests are in jeopardy. Since the 1960's, millions of acres of aspen forest have been lost in the Great Lakes region. Most of this acreage has converted to forests dominated by maple and other northern hardwoods. Northern hardwood forests are already far more abundant in the northern Great Lakes region than are aspen forests. Aspen losses have been less noticeable in Minnesota then elsewhere, because industries developed in the 1980's utilized and regenerated much of the aspen. Nonetheless, recent U.S. Forest Service data show that over 70,000 acres of aspen have been lost in the state since 1990. Currently there are 242,000 acres of aspen on state land in Regions 1, 2 and 3 that are over 60 years old. Intentional future reductions in aspen forest conservation will exacerbate the continuing loss of our aspen forests.
Not surprisingly, wildlife associated with aspen forest habitats are declining as well. With the exception of the federally endangered Kirtland's warbler, the golden-winged warbler is the most imperiled songbird in the eastern United States. Research clearly shows that this bird prefers to nest in very young aspen forests (1-6 years of age) that have recently been re-grown through clearcutting. Minnesota's forests lie at the very heart of the golden-winged warbler's breeding range. Any significant reduction in the conservation of aspen forest habitats in this region would be devastating to the golden-winged warbler.
Many of the species that define northern Minnesota to the outside world also rely on young forest habitats, including white-tailed deer, moose, wolves and Canada lynx. Deer are extremely important to the roughly half million sportsmen who pursue them each year. They and moose feed on the shoots of brush and young trees, and readily utilize trails, openings and edge created by timber harvesting operations. They, in turn, are preyed upon by timber wolves. Wolf recovery can be traced directly to active forest management in the 1980s that created abundant deer habitat, allowing deer populations to recover from the severe winters of the previous decade.
Canada lynx, currently on the Threatened Species list, periodically venture south into far northern Minnesota in search of their favorite prey - snowshoe hares. Hares do best in young mixed species forests. Incidentally, we now have several lynx living in the Boundary Waters region. Researchers are finding that they are actively seeking hares in young forests. The people of Minnesota have come to expect that they may have an opportunity to see a wolf, moose, or even a lynx in the wild. We can only maintain that opportunity by managing the forest to provide for the needs of these animals.
Many animals important to the people of Minnesota, including game animals, songbirds and species that define the north woods, evolved with forest disturbance and cannot thrive without it. We must actively create habitat for these animals since wildfire can no longer be allowed to do so. Only through thoughtful forest management can we create young forest habitat that is critical for the maintenance of the biological diversity of Minnesota's forested region.
-Rick Horton is formerly a Forest Wildlife Biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
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