Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Small Forest Landowner Office
Wildlife – What a great word. It evokes images of herds of elk in the Cascade Mountains, eagles fishing the Skagit River when the salmon are running, and orca breaching in Puget Sound. All wildlife, true, but when you’re talking about a small patch of woods, wildlife is usually less dramatic, consisting of smaller creatures like yellow pine chipmunks, deer mice, long toed salamanders, and hairy woodpeckers. These animals have small home ranges and live in direct association with specific and complex habitat features like snags, fallen logs and dense brush.
As landowners, it’s relatively easy to manage your forests in a way that provides the complexity these critters depend on and promotes wildlife diversity.
Start by protecting the existing habitat features on your land:
- Locate and protect unique habitats like wetlands, springs and seeps, aspen stands, riparian zones. Establish buffers around them and use fencing to keep livestock out. These unique habitats are part of the Forest Practice Rules riparian management zone.
- Create wildlife trees by leaving snags and live trees with dead tops, cavities, and feeding excavations. In addition to protecting standing dead and decaying trees for cavity habitat, keep broken and multiple topped trees and establish no cut buffers around the best snags. Wildlife trees and buffers around snags are required as part of harvest operations.
- Leave legacy trees. Retaining some of the largest trees in the stand, particularly those that will remain wind firm, provides a diverse overstory structure, perches for raptors, and a source of cone crop production. Under a Forest Practice Application, legacy trees are also called “green retention trees” and leaving them is a requirement for harvest.
- Retain and protect all larger down logs, especially those in advanced decay. If they’re in the way during logging, move them to a safe place. Do not run over them with equipment, as this will destroy the interstitial spaces in the rotting wood used by small mammals and amphibians. Protecting downed wood is also in rule as a requirement for all forest practices.
- Retain understory shrubs and low trees like cascara, huckleberry, elderberry, and wild rose – especially those that bear fruit for wildlife.
- Cut smaller diameter green trees for firewood as part of your thinning regime and allow the wood to “season” for a year or more before burning. These trees can also be girdled and allowed to dry standing up, which will help with the retention of snags and the development of cavity trees.
Once the features are protected, it’s time to enhance what’s there:
- Create snags during thinning and harvests. Mechanical harvesters can snip stems off at 8 to 15 feet with little effort and these short snags become cavity habitat in a few years. Thinning crews can also make short snags out of 4 to 6 inch trees by girdling and/or removing tops. Snags can even be installed in key locations.
- Create habitat piles by stacking larger branches and stems into crisscross piles with stems/branches at least 4 inches in diameter. Larger material should be piled at least 4 to 6 layers deep to form the core, with a “cavity” in the middle of the pile for snowshoe hare or bobcats. Cover the pile with a “roof” of smaller branches 1 to 2 feet thick.
- Create openings in stands with uniform canopies. Patch cuts approximately 100 to 200 feet across will allow sun to reach the ground and provide low plants for wildlife. Creating openings on larger lots may require a Forest Practices Application, so remember to check with your regional Forest Practices Forester before cutting any trees.
- Plant native shrubs that bear fruit like elderberry, serviceberry, chokecherry in openings or along edges. The shrubs may require browse protection in order to become established.
- Plant native seed mixes on disturbed sites such as skid trails and landings to provide forage for wildlife and help prevent weeds.
- Install nest boxes for use by cavity nesting birds and small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. Birds such as chickadees and wrens will use boxes installed within the forest canopy, while other species such as bluebirds and swallows prefer the edges of openings.
Have questions or want more ideas? Feel free to call (360-489-4802) or email me (Ken.Bevis@dnr.wa.gov).