Wildlife in Managed Forests

In a previous post titled “The response of the forest to drought” the questions led to the opportunity to bring us up to date on the current state of elk and the role that sound forest management can play. Here are some quotes from various sources some of which contradict what we have heard on this site regarding the need for dense cover:

A) “Wildlife in Managed Forests” – Elk and Deer – 2013, Oregon Forest Resources Institute
1) Page 2 – “Preferred forest habitat age: All forest ages, but most heavily associated with young stands where food is most abundant.”
2) Page 10 – “These results suggest that current commercial forestry practices are compatible with maintenance of ungulate forage species.”
3) Page 11 – ““For land managers who are interested in increasing healthy elk populations, their focus would be better spent on providing forage opportunities rather than cover.””
4) Page 13 – “Forage quality in late spring and summer is key to successful reproduction.” … “Elk prefer and will select certain highly nutritious and palatable plant species when they can get them.
These species, mostly in the forage classes of grasses, sedges, annual forbs and deciduous shrubs, provide a more concentrated source of energy than the less-preferred ferns, evergreen shrubs and conifers”
5) Page 14 – “Limited timber harvest on USFS lands since the implementation of the NW Forest Plan and social, political and legal mandates associated with late successional species have resulted in less early seral habitat on large contiguous tracts of USFS lands.”
6) Page 15 – “Where the objective is to provide landscapes with mosaics of early and advanced seral stages for elk, the effort will have to be ongoing in perpetuity and thus will be most effective if integrated in long-term management plans where habitat needs of elk are tied to forest manipulations”
7) “Land managers whose objectives include providing habitat and forage for deer and elk may want to consider the following silvicultural treatments:
• Where thinning is prescribed, thin timber stands to or below 50 percent crown closure to allow sufficient sunlight to reach the ground surface for early seral vegetation to become established.
• Retain any natural meadows and openings and remove encroaching conifers from these open areas. Note that power-line easements make great openings and often provide habitat for deer and elk.
• In thinned stands, create gaps of 1 to 5 acres on sites with east, south or west solar aspect and slopes less than 30 percent and away from open roads.
• In created gaps, plant a few native shrubs that provide fruit, nuts, berries or browse for wildlife.
• Seed all disturbed soil including skid trails, yarding corridors, landings and decommissioned roads with a seed mix of native grass and forb species that will provide high forage value for deer, elk and other species. These management prescriptions may not make sense for all landowners or all landscapes, but they will work in some areas to help provide habitat for deer and elk.”

B) From the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation we have 13 Bizarre Elk Facts That Most Hunters Don’t Know:
• “old trees are actually hurting elk populations.
“Our forest lands, whether on public or private land, are overstuffed with trees,” he told me over the phone. “The American public just loves trees, but in the forest where the elk live, too many trees block sunlight from getting to the forest floor. We’re not growing grasses and forbs, which are key to elk nutrition.”
What is needed are young forests, also known as early-successional habitats, that allow elk herds to thrive. Opening up tree-choked landscapes promotes the growth of low-lying vegetation, which are beneficial to elk and other wildlife.
“We’d like to see a lot more biodiversity out there so we’re really trying to encourage more thinning and more prescribed burning,” Tom said. “It’s not just for elk. There are a wide variety of bird species, small animal species, and big game animals that really benefit from the habitat work we do for elk.””

C) From the Forestry Source by Steve Wilent – Page 2 May 2014 “Embracing the Young Forest”:
1) “The Northwest Forest Plan’s was to secure late successional stands for the spotted owl … Now the battle is being waged … for … the inhabitants of the youngest forests.”
2) “In the Northeast and upper Midwest we documented 65 species … that were declining because of the loss of young forest habitat.”

To conclude this post let me repeat, one more time, that Single Species Management such as for the NSO and the 14 million acres set aside to “preserve” its habitat is having a far ranging negative impact on countless other species including elk. Single Species Management isn’t even working for the NSO as mentioned many times before (more details to come at a later date in response to a question from Jon Haber in a previous discussion thread on this blog site). Contrary to the opinion expressed by some on this blog site, sound forest management in the form of more small (~40 to ~200 acres) early seral regeneration openings and thinnings with included similar sized patches of stands near the maximum target density more evenly distributed throughout the forest would improve forage while providing cover from prey. Extensive contiguous acreages of dense conifers are counter productive to increasing or sustaining elk populations. Which is to say that those who focus on single species management and especially on late successional habitat (i.e. old growth) have forgotten about the importance of edge effect in wildlife management and the importance of maintaining a balanced age distribution of stands to replace the old growth which, no matter how hard you try, can’t be “preserved” in its current state over the long term. Heterogeneity/diversity is preferable to large contiguous acreages of homogeneity for all species in the long run.

20 Comments

  1. You know what’s really weird?

    That big game hunters from Montana and around America spend tens of millions of dollars a year for an iconic week or two week long elk hunting trip in places like the Bob Marshall-Scapegoat-Great Bear Wilderness, or the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, or the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, or the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, or the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness…or a variety of other roadless, backcountry pockets of federal public lands.

    If only these wiley hunters knew that the very best places to hunt elk really weren’t in protected Wilderness areas and other roadless U.S. Forest Service lands…but rather the best elk hunting in Montana was really concentrated in places with “commercial forestry practices” where all the disturbed soil from skid trails, yarding corridors, landings, etc is replanted with “a deed mix of native grass and forb speices that will provide high forage value for deer, elk and other species.”

    I will make sure to let my hunting buddies know that backcountry, roadless forests like this in Montana contain no elk…despite all the elk we see, some of which have ended up in our freezer.

    • Don’t the state wildlife agencies have herd objective and approximate herd counts for each unit?
      It seems to me the questions implied here could be relatively easy to answer.
      Actual herd counts, over a wide geographic range, over at least the last few decades, contrasted with herd objectives. As opposed to studies, I mean.
      Anyway… Would seem easy to find out where the best Elk units are.

    • Matthew

      You have created a very poor straw man with your comment: “If only these wiley hunters knew that the very best places to hunt elk really weren’t in protected Wilderness areas and other roadless U.S. Forest Service lands…but rather the best elk hunting in Montana was really concentrated in places with “commercial forestry practices””

      Please show me where anything I quoted or anything anywhere in these articles comes even close to suggesting that commercial forests are the best places to hunt elk. My quote: “2) Page 10 – “These results suggest that current commercial forestry practices are compatible with maintenance of ungulate forage species”” is totally devoid of any implication remotely close to your twisted and deliberately misleading claim. How does “compatibility” equate with “best places”? And you teach English?

      Nice try – you get negative points on this one.

      Your nice pictures clearly support the articles that I quoted in that they show a nice balance of open meadows for forage intermixed with forests of varying density for cover creating lots of edge effect. That is why, as you say, “big game hunters from Montana and around America spend tens of millions of dollars a year for an iconic week or two week long elk hunting trip in places like the Bob Marshall-Scapegoat-Great Bear Wilderness, or the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, or the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, or the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, or the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness…or a variety of other roadless, backcountry pockets of federal public lands.”

      So your straw man has been blown away along with your effort to discredit valid research.

  2. First, I find some irony in a post that uses an article that focuses on a narrow group of big game species to criticize the “single-species” approach of the NWFP.

    Second, the Northwest Forest Plan is not a single species plan. An earlier version of the plan was thrown out in 1992 because it failed to maintain habitat to support viable populations of wildlife other than spotted owls. In the end, the NWFP FEIS addressed the needs of more than 1,100 species thought to be dependent on declining habitat of late successional forests.

    The reason that early seral forests were not given more attention was explained in the FEIS:

    The amount of early-successional forest on the landscape within the range of the northern spotted owl is probably greater now than at any time in the past. … Any species that find optimum habitat in burned forests must have had the dispersal and reproductive capabilities to find and reproduce in these dispersed and infrequent patches of habitat. In general, species associated with early-successional conditions are good dispersers, have high reproductive rates, and are able to persist in small patches of habitat that result from small-scale disturbance (Hunter 1990, Smith 1966)….

    Compared to their historic populations, species associated with these early-successional conditions have increased in abundance. For example, Raphael et al. (1988) estimated that populations of 11 species of birds have probably tripled over historic numbers, and another 4 species have more than doubled. Raphael et al. (1988) and Raphael (1988) compared the estimated abundance of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals from historic times to their present abundance and concluded that the early-successional associates that have increased over time were associated with more open, drier conditions; were widely distributed (larger total geographic ranges than species associated with late-successional conditions); and, had wider ecological tolerances (i.e., they occupy a greater variety of habitat types). As noted by Harris (1984), birds associated with early-successional forest are more often migrants whereas late-successional associates are generally permanent residents. These studies also show that whereas some species associated with early-successional conditions reach their maximum abundance in early-successional forest, none of the species were restricted to that successional stage.

    The creation of early-successional conditions as a result of logging has produced a different pattern on the landscape than the pattern that likely would have resulted solely from natural disturbance. Patches of early-successional forest are now more evenly distributed across the landscape, and sizes of patches are smaller. This pattern may have resulted in a more widespread distribution of early-successional species than in the past.

    [T]here is currently additional acreage of early-successional forest intermixed in a fragmented pattern within all of the Late-Successional Reserves and Riparian Reserves on federal lands within the range of the northern spotted owl. As well, natural disturbances will continue to create early-successional conditions. The federal forest lands occur within a broader landscape of nonfederal lands where additional early-successional forest will be created through logging and other management activity. These lands will contribute to the maintenance of early-successional forest over time.

    1994 NWFP FSEIS, pp 3&4-203 – 204.

    • 2ndOutLaw

      1) Re your: “First, I find some irony”:
      –> Too bad that you didn’t bother to comprehend the first paragraph and discern that the focus was predominantly on answering Matthew’s comment in a previous post: “Hi Mac, How many wolves, or elk, or bull trout, or wolverines or other native wildlife species live in that lettuce patch? How many creeks and springs and rivers are found in the lettuce patch? How much clean water or clean air does the lettuce patch produce? Do people recreate in the lettuce patch? And, yes, what about carrots and beets? How do all these questions apply to those vegetables?”
      –> Seems that Elk can do very well on intensively managed forests contrary to Matthew’s implication. So, Mac’s analogy of thinning lettuce to thinning forests to control stand density was right on.

      2) Re your: “In the end, the NWFP FEIS addressed the needs of more than 1,100 species thought to be dependent on declining habitat of late successional forests.”
      –> Too bad that the NSO Recovery Plan/NWFP FEIS was light on addressing the sustainability of the forest upon which those 1,100 species depend. See #3 below. More on this when I get to a future post on the Failure of the NSO Recovery Plan.

      3) Re your quote from the 1994 NWFP FSEIS: “The amount of early-successional forest on the landscape within the range of the northern spotted owl is probably greater now than at any time in the past”
      –> Too bad you didn’t pay attention to the word “probably” in the same quote – seems to be a little short on substantiation.
      –> Too bad you didn’t read the 2013 status on early seral habitat that I included above which states: “5) Page 14 – “Limited timber harvest on USFS lands since the implementation of the NW Forest Plan and social, political and legal mandates associated with late successional species have resulted in less early seral habitat on large contiguous tracts of USFS lands.””
      —-> What a difference 19 years makes thanks to the NSO Recovery Plan. More on this when I get to a future post on the Failure of the NSO Recovery Plan.

  3. Since I happened to run across this – according to the Forest Service, in their 2016 draft EIS for the southern Sierra national forest plan revisions addressing California spotted owls, territory occupancy is positively related to the amounts of mature forest at core area scales, with higher colonization rates and lower extinction rates associated with territories having more mature forest (p. 335). That should mean that less early seral habitat is good for these owls.

    I found this similar conclusion for NSOs:
    “We found a negative relationship between local extinction probability and amount of late-seral forest edge. We found a negative relationship between colonization probability and the number of late-seral forest patches (higher fragmentation), and a negative relationship between colonization probability and the amount of non-habitat within 600 m of a spotted owl territory center (Akaike weight = 0.59).
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4277855/
    This validated many previous studies.

    These results would follow from the fact that barred owls make more use of open areas for foraging than spotted owls (http://www.owling.com/barred-owl-biology/), and suggests that cutting down trees increases the likelihood of barred owls displacing spotted owls. (I imagine there is some research that reaches this conclusion.)

    • Jon

      A) I had already read the studies and have no problem with your first and second paragraphs if we ignore the experience and research on industrial forests in NW California (I will deal with that in the later post that I’m working on – see this prior post). This old post is just one of the many where I have documented my statements. But since nobody remembers about that I will do a comprehensive post on the failure of the NSO recovery plan instead of just digging up the old posts as I told you I would in a prior comment so it is going to take more time than I originally thought to include all of the latest data.

      B) In regards to your third paragraph, consider the possibility that more early seral foraging habitat would reduce the competition for food on the NSO more deeply inside the forest by providing more desirable forage for the Barred owl on the edges. See this prior post.

      C) MOST IMPORTANTLY, CONSIDER THE BIG PICTURE – It is all about SUSTAINABILITY – without a regular and proportionate succession of early seral, there will eventually be a gap as the old growth and what is in the pipeline behind it dies out. What will happen then? You’ve said that the recovery plan has that taken into account but how can they when the facts are that:
      — 1) see item #5 on Page 14 in the opening thread above which states: “Limited timber harvest on USFS lands since the implementation of the NW Forest Plan and social, political and legal mandates associated with late successional species have resulted in less early seral habitat on large contiguous tracts of USFS lands.”””
      — 2) The 2006 article in the SAF’s “Forestry Source” publication which states that ‘early seral is the most under represented succession stage in the PNW’ or something to that effect – Steve is looking to see if he can provide me a link for my future post on the failure of the NSO recovery plan.
      — 3) Consider the impact on all of the species that do depend on early seral habitat. “Managers concerned about maintaining rare species are increasingly acknowledging the value of early seral habitats for a substantial portion of the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest”

      • Just one general comment in response. NRV (of course)! What that means here is that forest planning must determine whether early seral structure is likely to get outside of the sustainable range (and that should factor in expected fire), and to plan to restore it if it is. Fortunately, restoring young forest should be a lot easier than restoring old forest, which means we shouldn’t be too hasty at converting the latter to the former without a pretty solid scientific basis. I also hope that that the Forest Service takes into account the larger ecosystems that national forests are found in, which could lead to less early seral on national forest lands where there is more than enough on other ownerships.

        • Jon

          Note C-2 above: “— 2) The 2006 article in the SAF’s “Forestry Source” publication which states that ‘early seral is the most under represented succession stage in the PNW’” – That reads in the PNW not just federal lands in PNW.

          I’m working on the future post – any other questions to me will have to wait on that. I’m presently inundated with research to sort through

  4. “That should mean that less early seral habitat is good for these owls.”

    Well, since there hasn’t been any clearcutting there since 1993, this whole point is quite moot, eh? Regarding core nesting territories, this has been known and practiced since the original 1993 CASPO guidelines were put into policy.

    Some people continue to insist that thinning is worse for our forests than wildfires.

  5. “Some people continue to insist that thinning is worse for our forests than wildfires.”

    That’s kind of the key question, isn’t it? And the answer to which choice is better is “it depends.” This means that the assumptions used in forest planning must be made clear, and conclusions must be clearly supported by the best available scientific information, with hopefully a lot of public review. I think the Forest Service is working on providing this for forest planning on spotted owl forests based on ongoing assessments in R5 and R6. Keep your eye on them.

    • Forest Service Wildlife Biologists do not agree that thinning is worse than wildfires, from their point of view. I’ll bet you could say the same for Hydrologists and Archaeologists, too. They prefer the stability and resilience of sustainable forests, and not the idea that forests are better with uncontrolled fire. What we are sure of is the certainty of an abundance of man-caused wildfires, here in California.

    • Jon

      The NSO recovery plan was predicated on considerable thinning to provide faux old growth to satisfy the NSO habitat needs as the old growth died. So far, my digging, has indicated that the thinning is not happening so the extinction will come sooner than the original plan. BUT, again, I have more work to do to put all of this together so links will have to wait.

  6. County commissioners in SW Washington- almost completely industry land- have petitioned Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife to restrict herbicide spraying, contending that herbicides are the cause of elk hoof disease, which has decimated 95% of local elk populations. Since these commissioners are hardly radical environmentalists, their concerns seem worthy of study. Elk hoof disease has been widely reported, and has recently been acknowledged to have crossed the Columbia into Oregon.

    While elk populations in Oregon have been steady, according to information I’ve found, deer populations are crashing. If herbicides are contributing to big game die-off, this discrepancy could be due to the fact that elk forage widely- over dozens of miles or more- while deer generally stay within a five-mile range, or so I’ve been told. Thus elk are able to escape herbicides tracts when deer are not.

    According to Jerry Franklin, the ecological functionality of herbicides cut-over land is nil; it’s an “ecological desert.” Since herbicides attack and destroy plants which have evolved in the last 200 million years (flowering plants), the animals which have evolved in that time like insects, birds and mammals could well be affected. Don’t feel like you have to respond Gil. I’d like to hear what others have to say.

    • Fergus

      A valid concern – I personally do not think that herbicides are necessary nor all that safe but confess that I don’t know the facts on herbicide safety. I’m scared of them and don’t want to be anywhere near them.

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