Wildlife on Your National Forest
By Gary Zimmer - Certified Wildlife Biologist
According to the US Forest Service, the 193 million-acre national forests and grasslands under their management provide 80 percent of the elk, mountain goat and bighorn sheep habitat in the contiguous states of our country. Within this ownership are approximately 12 million acres of waterfowl habitat, 28 million acres of wild turkey habitat and habitat for 250 species of neotropical migratory birds. Opportunities abound to manage habitats that meet public demands for hunting and wildlife viewing, one of the primary objectives of the Forest Service’s wildlife program.
Another objective of the program is to protect and restore native habitats important to biodiversity. Reducing past emphasis on single species management, the Forest Service has moved toward broader-based management of species groupings that include upland early successional species, wetland habitats, dead and dying tree associated species, fire-adapted communities, and old growth species. Management is directed toward maintaining biodiversity for all wildlife that is not endangered or threatened. Often this includes providing a mix of successional stages across the landscapes or protecting critical habitats like wetlands, riparian areas, or locations where species overwinter. Endangered or threatened species may require more specific, targeted efforts to maintain population levels.
Wildlife on national forests is also an economic asset. Per a 2007 report from Southwick Associates, National Forest System Lands (154 National Forests and 20 Grasslands) provided an estimated 15.5 million activity days of hunting annually with an estimated economic value of $894 million. Wildlife watching on these lands provided 5.6 million activity days and an additional economic value of $168 million from retail sales.
National forests are home for more than 3,000 species of wildlife. These large public land areas provide an abundance of habitats and locations that meet the daily needs (food, water, cover, nesting and rearing areas) of these species. These large National Forests, often bordering each other, provide plenty of room to roam for species like elk that need to move annually from summer to winter range and species with vast home ranges like mountain lion. In addition, the largely uninhabited National Forest lands often are key habitat for secretive species like Canada lynx or wolverine.
Closer to home, the four National Forests of Michigan (Hiawatha, Huron-Manistee, and Ottawa) and Wisconsin (Chequamegon-Nicolet) provide habitat for approximately 600 species of wildlife including over 400 bird species. Each Forest has staff dedicated to wildlife management efforts on their forests. Forest and District biologists plan and implement wildlife habitat management activities, often working closely with foresters planning timber sales to promote desired habitat conditions. These biologists also plan a key role in evaluating wildlife impacts of proposed projects with special emphasis on the effects to endangered, threatened or sensitive plant or animal species. Most Districts have technicians who work at least part time conducting specific wildlife management projects.
Wildlife staff spend time monitoring wildlife populations especially federally listed endangered and threatened species, Regional Forester’s Sensitive Species, and state species of conservation concern. These lists vary by Forest. As an example, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is host to four federally listed species and 26 animal and 49 plants on the Regional Forester’s Sensitive Species list.
Each Forest provides specific wildlife recreation opportunities for wildlife viewing or hunting. These include hunter walking trails, bird watching trails, and wildlife viewing platforms. Hunter walking trails on these forests typically target ruffed grouse hunters. Gated trails through prime young forest habitat provide walking hunters, often accompanied by dogs, a great chance to pursue this elusive quarry. One area on the Ottawa National Forest, Bluebill Creek in Gogebic County, is one of Michigan’s grouse enhanced management sites (GEMS). This system of grouse hunting areas managed primarily to promote ruffed grouse populations and hunting opportunities on lands open to the public are especially popular to non-resident grouse hunters. Ruffed grouse hunting in the Upper Midwest draws hunters from all over the country each fall giving a jump to local economies during an otherwise slow fall tourism season.
The Huron-Manistee National Forest even provides a guided and self-guided driving tour providing a chance for visitors to see the rare Kirtlands warbler in its young jack pine forest habitat specifically managed for this species. In the early 1970’s, Kirtland’s warbler were near extinction with less than 200 known pairs left in the world. This was one of the first species to be placed on the Federal Endangered Species list established under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The combination of controlling brown-headed cowbirds and strategic management of young jack pine habitat led to the recovery of this species. Cowbirds lay their own eggs in warbler nests causing the warbler chicks to die as the warbler parents feed the faster growing cowbird young. Once one of America’s rarest birds, the Kirtland’s warbler has rebounded with over 2,300 known nesting pairs and their range expanding from an isolated population in Central Lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario.
Another wildlife area to visit is the Peninsula Point Lighthouse on the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Located southwest of Rapid River, Peninsula Point is a popular viewing site for watching monarch butterflies and viewing bird migrations in spring and fall. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded at this site. An additional bonus of this site is the ability to climb the lighthouse for a spectacular view of Lake Michigan.
While there certainly are numerous opportunities to enjoy wildlife on your National Forests, much of the work supporting these populations and the habitats they need is done with little fanfare. The general public is often unaware of all the collaboration required to ensure wildlife needs are met over the long term. Especially in forest wildlife management, managers must consider the long-term ramifications of any decision being made. Forest habitat is always changing; meeting the needs of wildlife species on these forests requires providing a full spectrum of ages and forest types across the landscape.