For many forest landowners in northern Michigan, wildlife habitat management ranks as a primary ownership goal. While white-tailed deer, black bear, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and other game species are usually of primary interest, the majority of vertebrate wildlife species in our forests are non-game species. In fact, most of our forest wildlife are secretive, cryptic, and/or migratory, spending only the breeding season in northern Michigan. To introduce the reader to some of these species and how specific forest structures provide wildlife habitat, below I will describe a hypothetical forest wildlife community inhabiting a hypothetical 40-acre forest property during late Spring. Our imaginary forested property has 30 acres of northern hardwoods and 10 acres of lowland conifers. The property has both mature trees (40 feet tall or more and 40-100 years old) and immature trees (seedlings and saplings less than 20 feet tall). The northern hardwood forest is comprised of big-tooth aspen, red maple, and sugar maple, with a few scattered large eastern white pine and red oak trees. It once had eastern hemlock and white spruce, but these species were removed decades ago and are no longer represented. White ash was also part of this forest, but non-native, invasive emerald ash borer killed all the trees. The lowland conifers include black spruce, balsam fir, tamarack, and northern whitecedar. The first wildlife species encountered on our property is the gray treefrog. Because our property has “vernal ponds” (seasonally wet spots that dry out come summer in the northern hardwoods) and some standing water in the lowland conifers, a number of different species of amphibians exist on the property. Our gray treefrog is one of the more cryptic. We hear it, but don’t see it. The color of its skin blends in perfectly as it sits on a limb of a red maple on the edge of the northern hardwood patch. Only the trained ear can discern the odd song of this species from other sounds in our forest. The male’s odd song will attract a female that will lay eggs in our vernal ponds and other standing water. The next wildlife species we encounter on our property is a strikingly colored, and consistently vocal, male American redstart. This small, migratory songbird is one of the more common forest bird species in the eastern United States and males are dramatically colored with orange, black, and white. Our male is defending a breeding territory in a 1-acre patch in our northern hardwood forest, spending most of its time in young maple saplings less than 1 inch in diameter. Its mate, yellow-brown and secretive, is sitting on three eggs in a small nest in a sapling sugar maple only 6 feet off the ground. When the young hatch, they will be fed protein-rich insects collected by both parents. Because of the water and the cover in the adjacent lowland conifers, there are lots of insects in our forest and the young grow quickly. Come August, they all will migrate to the Caribbean. Our final two wildlife species are using one tree, just different parts of it. A large big-tooth aspen has formed a perfect crown into which a great-horned owl pair nested the previous February. Now, the two chicks are nearly full grown and are out of the nest, looking for small mammals as prey. Because this aspen is over 100 years old, decay has started to cause some of the limbs to break off and fall to the forest floor. Here, the fallen limbs provide cover for an array of plant, fungi, and animal species, including the pygmy shrew that hides from the owl. This shrew is a member of the second smallest species of mammal in the world, and is most active at night. Because of its high metabolism it eats continuously and is now searching for insects and other invertebrates that are using the fallen limb as well. All told, our 40-ac property provides conditions for many more wildlife species than space allows us to mention here. While game management can provide habitat for some non-game species, forest wildlife diversity is usually a result of complexity provided by “composition” (the mix of tree species) and “structure” (the vertical and horizontal arrangement of live and dead trees) specific to a given forest site. Composition and structure for the present and the future can be a focus of forest planning and management. And if identified as a landownership goal, forest planning that takes into account natural models of how forests form and function can provide a blueprint for maintaining forest wildlife diversity. Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted via email (email@example.com) or phone (989.356.3596 x102).
We have come to the last of our four foundations of ecologically based forest management (i.e., context, continuity, complexity, and timing). Below, I discuss how forest land use history impacts future forest management and the important consideration of the timing of forest treatments. As discussed previously, forests are much more than just trees. Forests have living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts. Living organisms include trees, other plants, fungi (mushrooms), and vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Abiotic components include air and water, among other things. Soils are complex, and contain both biotic soil organisms and abiotic minerals. Nonetheless, we often refer to forests based on the most common tree species. Locally common “forest types” include aspen forest or oak forest or red pine forest, for example. While generalities within forest types can be made, what separates nearly every forest from another forest are their unique management histories. In other words, there are aspects of oak forests in northern Michigan that are shared among other oak forests, but that differ significantly with red pine forests in northern Michigan. And one oak forest differs from another oak forest because the land use history of each differ. So how do past events affect a current or future forest? There are generally two reasons a certain type of forest in a certain condition currently exists on a site or might grow on a site in the future: 1) the site’s soil and climate and 2) the site’s history. What happened in the past not only partly explains what type of forest is currently found, but what type of forest may be found in the future. For the most drastic example, consider our ash forests. When the exotic, invasive emerald ash borer moved into these forests and caused wide-spread mortality, these forests were fundamentally changed. Not only are they different now, but they will be different from what they once were for decades to come. The site’s soil and climate didn’t change, but the majority of ash were removed and therefore unable to reproduce more ash in the future. Something similar has happened in the past in some parts of the eastern United States with Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight. What happened in the past influenced what forest currently exists and what forest may be in the future. Now, let’s consider a “forest succession” example. Forest succession is the changing of one forest type to another forest type over time (decades or more). This change occurs because short-lived tree species that tend to need more sunlight naturally die and are replaced by longer-lived tree species that can often exist under lower light scenarios. In many northern Michigan forests, for instance, shorter-lived aspen trees give way over 50 or more years to longer-lived oak and eastern white pine. But how does the timing of forest treatments (logging) impact this? Forest management can dictate whether succession continues to occur and longer-lived tree species predominate or whether the site is reset to the stage comprised of shorter-lived tree species. Some forest treatments can reset succession, have little impact on the current trend in forest development, or actually promote longer-lived tree species. The shorter the time between treatments (logging events), the less likely the forest is allowed to recover and recruit new tree species and develop aspects discussed in my previous article on complexity. To maintain continuity and complexity in forests, the timing of forest treatments is an important consideration. Here again, natural models of how forests historically worked can aid contemporary forest management. Studies have shown that forest types can be grouped by the type of natural disturbances they evolved under and the timing of such events. As previously described, disturbances are anything that impact living material in a forest, with fire and wind and herbivory being common examples. While fires in other parts of the country were historically common on 5-10 year intervals, naturally occurring fires shaped northern Michigan forests at intervals nearly 10x this rate. Thus, some aspects of our forests only occur if the timing of our management activities take into account these greater natural time frames. If maintaining biodiversity within a forest is of interest, context, continuity, complexity, and timing can all be considered during the forest management planning stage. Depending on the forest type and the site’s land use history, aspects of these precepts of ecologically based forest management can then be applied to differing degrees in each forest. Dr. Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via phone (989.356.3596 x102).
We have now covered the first two of the four foundations of ecologically-based forest management (i.e., context, continuity, complexity, and timing). Here, I define forest complexity, describe how and why pine plantations differ from naturally-regenerated pine forests, and finally illustrate how to apply lessons learned. Forest complexity can be defined within the context of “composition” (the mix of tree species) and “structure” (the vertical and horizontal arrangement of live and dead trees). Complexity can also be defined within the context of spatial arrangement of trees; a complex forest differs from point to point and is far from uniform or orderly. While some forest types are generally more complex than others, the general rule applies that complex forests are more biologically rich. How about plantations? In many ways, the history of forestry begins with plantation management. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the US Forest Service, was trained in Europe where even the Black Forest is really a large conifer plantation. Most natural forests were cutover centuries ago in Europe and replaced with plantations primarily managed for timber production. Plantations are forests derived from intensive management and the planting of seedlings or seeds of usually one tree species. These seeds or seedlings are spaced to optimize vertical growth in the early years of the plantation, with subsequent “thinning” by removing some trees to give the remaining trees more sunlight for continued growth. This is how pine trees grow straight and tall, and then put on diameter growth. But plantations differ dramatically compared to naturally-regenerated forests, especially in regards to complexity of composition, structure, and spatial arrangement. In northern Michigan, jack pine and red pine plantations are common and are most often found on dry, sandy sites that historically were fire-prone. These plantations are easily seen through aerial imagery provided by Google Earth and the uniformity of these forests is readily observed. Trees are generally all the same height and diameter and the spacing is nearly the same between each tree. Because light conditions in many young plantations is low, jack pine and red pine plantations are usually devoid of many other plant species. These characteristics of plantations usually dictate wildlife use as well. Most studies suggest that plantations provide for far fewer wildlife species than do natural forests of the same type. Research has indicated how relatively more complex natural red pine and jack pine forests area than their plantation counterparts. This complexity is often produced by fire. As a natural part of these ecosystems, fire regenerates these forests and, for red pine, maintains them. Whereas fire in jack pine tends to be severe and kills most (but not all!) trees, in natural red pine stands fire causes much less mortality. Unlike jack pines, mature red pines have thick bark and lack lower branches. These attributes protect the tree from heat and reduces fire from climbing up a tree into the green foliage. Consequently, fire usually produces a broader array of flora and therefore compositional complexity in these forests compared to plantations. In jack pine forests that are burned, structural complexity is provided by an abundance of dead trees (snags). In red pine forests, fire provides structural complexity by producing a range of different sizes of red pines and fewer, scattered snags. Finally, in both jack pine and red pine forests fire produces complex spatial patterns and a lack of uniformity. But can something be done to make plantations more complex? The simple answer is: yes, many things. For instance, one of the easiest things to do is to consider leaving some remnants of the previous forest as part of the new plantation. This was addressed as “continuity’ in the previous article. Next, consider planting a mix of pine species, including eastern white pine. While planting may still be uniform to get trees to grow straight and tall, thinning stands irregularly can then be done to produce some spatial complexity in older plantations. Also, snags and coarse woody debris can easily be provided at no cost while thinning is done. Logging equipment can simply either girdle or top a selected tree and leave it in place, or cut a tree and place it on the forest floor and provide coarse woody debris. Many lessons can be learned by studying natural forests. Observed patterns in complexity can then be applied through ecologically-based forest management, even in intensively managed pine plantations. Dr. Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. Greg has spent the last 25 years publishing forest and wildlife research and conducting forest planning, management, inventory, and monitoring on public and private lands across northern Michigan. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted via email (email@example.com) or via phone (989.356.3596 x102).
In my last two articles, I first mentioned the four foundations of ecologically-based forest management (i.e., context, continuity, complexity, and timing) and then described the importance of context. Now, I’ll address the importance of forest continuity and illustrate the concept using the example of aspen forest management in northern Michigan. Forest continuity is the purposeful retention of features of the pre-harvested forest in the postharvested forest. Forest ecologists refer to these features as “structural elements” and they promote forest biodiversity. Examples of these structural features include large, scattered trees of less common species, dead trees (snags), and logs in different stages of decay on the forest floor. Each of these structural elements provides different habitats (or niches) for a broad-array of organisms, including different species of fungi, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates (game and non-game species). For example, large trees are fundamentally different than smaller trees in how they look (their form) and what they provide to a forest (their function). Look at a large (often older) tree and observe how the patterns of the crown and bark differ from a smaller tree of the same species (often younger). Not surprisingly, many species of hawks and owls use large trees to build nests since the larger limbs, more open crowns, and resulting notches support them. Large trees are also a requirement for many wildlife species that use cavities, pileated woodpeckers are simply too big to fit into a cavity in a smaller tree. Large trees also have complex patterns to their bark. Run your hand along the stem of a young tree and an older tree and you will note the ridges, valleys, and complexity of the older tree’s bark. Not surprisingly, birds from your bird feeder often store seeds in the bark of older trees and not younger trees. To illustrate the concept of continuity in real-world forest management, think of our aspen forests. There are four species of aspen in northern Michigan: trembling aspen, big-toothed aspen, balsam poplar, and cottonwood. All belong to the genus Populus from which the common term “popple” or “poplar” comes from. Before settlement in the late 1800s, aspen was less abundant in northern Michigan. Human activities during the 20th century, such as the clearing of the land for agriculture and then agricultural abandonment, human-caused wildfires, and the management of aspen for timber and game species led to a significant increase in the dominance of aspen across many landscapes. Currently, many aspen forests are managed by removing all trees (clearcutting). When done in the winter, this type of management encourages aspen to reproduce by below ground re-sprouting of “suckers” that derive from the aspen root system and then grow into what we call trees. However, one stand of aspen often consists of only one “tree”, with the many stems being genetic copies of one another. Most individual aspen trees or clones (the term used for the group of individual stems that are actually genetic copies) are relatively short-lived. Rarely does one find aspen older than 100 years. Yet if one walks into an aspen forest of 10 years of age and one of 70 years of age one would have an entirely different experience. Not only would the older forest consist of fewer stems, those found would be larger in diameter and more complexly shaped. Older aspen forests also tend to have other tree species in them that have seeded in over the decades the forest has taken to develop. The ground flora of the forest would also likely differ significantly between younger and older stand, with more variability and diversity in the older stand. To apply the concept of forest continuity, therefore, some of the structural elements of the older stand can be retained. For instance, one can simply not cut the scattered conifers that may have seeded in, or simply not cut all the dead or dying larger aspen, or actively retain decaying logs on the forest floor. Small patches of untreated areas can also be retained during logging operations and thereby provide all these structural features in small patches. Forests are not agricultural fields and they should not be managed as such. Management actions that simplify forests by removing all structural elements tend to do so to the detriment of biodiversity. Retaining structural elements of pre-harvested forests in post-harvested forests provides for forest continuity and forest complexity. Dr. Greg Corace is the forester for the Alpena-Montmorency Conservation District. Greg has spent the last 25 years publishing forest and wildlife research and conducting forest planning, management, inventory, and monitoring on public and private lands across northern Michigan. For more information, including sources used in this article, Greg can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or via phone (989.356.3596 x102).
Dr. Greg Corace
Want to hear about what is new in the science world? Maybe get more information on the birds around us? Or maybe you want to keep up to date on what is happening in our current environment and with the natural resources we love. Check out some interesting articles shared by our Forester, Dr. Greg Corace.