Habitat Improvement, what does ‘Habitat Improvement’ really even mean? There are multiple different names for what Habitat Improvement is, maybe it’s ‘Habitat Manipulation’ or ‘Habitat Mitigation.’ You may have heard of ‘Hydro-axing,’ ‘Roller Chopping,’ ‘Chaining,’ or probably even ‘Prescribed Burn’ which are all methods incorporated into Habitat Improvement. Regardless of the names and methods you may have heard associated with Habitat Improvement, it basically boils down to this: mimicking a natural disturbance through mechanical means to reset the vegetation to early successional or seral stages of development.
As plant communities age unimpeded by natural disturbance, i.e. fire, they become less productive for ground foraging species like deer and elk, reducing their habitat quality and size. Further, expanding forests create what is considered a homogeneous landscape, meaning the land is all being converted into one habitat type, which reduces biological diversity among plants and other animals who require diverse habitat types. Large stands of older growth trees with dense forest canopies, considered late seral stage plants, block out sunlight to ground-level vegetation such as grasses and forbs which are considered early seral stage plants. By blocking out sunlight to ground-level vegetation, photosynthesis is halted and grasses and forbs are not allowed to proliferate. This is precisely why the ground in a dense lodgepole pine or spruce-fir forest is essentially bare exposed dirt.
Fire as a natural occurrence has in essence, been removed or significantly reduced from the landscape over the past 50+ years allowing so-called late seral stage plant communities to expand and subsequently reduce habitat size and quality for many species of wildlife. By mechanically manipulating the landscape by mechanically thinning forest stands through the use of hydro-axing, roller chopping, chaining, or prescribed burning, we are recreating a disturbance on the landscape to create a more natural habitat composition which benefits all wildlife species. However, these manipulations cost money, tens- to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and operating costs are climbing annually. That’s where the Wildlife Habitat Improvement – Local District (WHILD) Fund, steps in.
The WHILD fund was established to create a perpetual source of funding, sponsored by the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, for many types of habitat improvement projects throughout Routt County. These projects can range from the types mentioned above, to bank restoration for aquatic species and ecosystems. Further, the WHILD fund can be used to fund research and law enforcement to aid in protecting critical habitat in which closures may be required to provide relief to wildlife during critical times such as birthing season. By ensuring a perpetual source of funding for habitat improvement, research, and law enforcement, wildlife of all shapes, sizes, and species will benefit for generations.
-written by: Kyle Bond, District Wildlife Manager – Steamboat South