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Habitat management tools

Learn about the tools used by MassWildlife's Habitat Program to create, restore, and maintain a variety of open habitat types.

The Habitat Program employs a number of tools to create, restore, and maintain a variety of open habitat types including grassland, shrubland, and young forests,  on public Wildlife Lands across Massachusetts to meet habitat goals. Tools include: wood product harvest, mowing and mulching, invasive plant management, and prescribed fire.

Wood Product Harvest

Forestry practices such as harvesting of timber, firewood, and other wood products are used to create areas of open young forest habitat on wildlife lands across the Commonwealth. Appropriate locations for young forest habitat work are identified through a landscape-level GIS analysis of soil types, topography, and land use history. Following the harvest of renewable wood products, which helps support local economies and reduces Massachusetts’ dependence on imported wood products, these young forest habitats are typically allowed to grow undisturbed for 50-100 years before any subsequent management occurs. As the dense cover and food resources associated with young forest patches begins to fade after 20-30 years of regrowth, aditinal patches of young forest are established elsewhere on the landscape so that a shifting mosaic of this valuable habitat type is consistently available over time.

Wood products are an important part of our everyday life and include items such as the infrastructure of homes, fuel for heating, and paper products. Based on 2012 census data, Massachusetts has more than 6.5 million residents. On average one person uses more than 100 board feet of wood per year, which is equivalent to one tree about the size of the white pine pictured to the left. Harvesting forest products locally gives the consumer the opportunity to observe and learn about the practices used to harvest these products and the opportunity to observe the response of our forest lands to these management activities over time.

Even though MassWildlife routinely conducts wood products harvesting to benefit wildlife habitat, we rarely remove all trees from a given acre of land. Individual trees or groups of trees are often retained for their structural and habitat values. Trees may be retained for their food production value (e.g., full-crowned oaks or cherries that provide abundant mast for wildlife), for their protective value (e.g., mature hemlocks that provide important winter cover for wildlife), for their aesthetic value (e.g., an old sugar maple that provides bright orange foliage in autumn), or any combination thereof.

Mowing and Mulching

One of the most cost-effective ways the Habitat Program maintains valuable shrubland habitat is to mow or mulch trees as they invade abandoned agricultural fields. Brush-hogs can be pulled behind a farm tractor to mow small encroaching trees up to about 1” in diameter. Tracked “Bobcat” or “ASV” machines with a fecon type mulching head can be used to mulch encroaching trees 2-3” in diameter, and excavator-mounted drum mowerssuch as a “Brontosaurus” can be used to mulch trees 4-8” in diameter.

Not all trees and shrubs are mowed within a project area. Individual trees and shrubs that provide valuable food and cover for wildlife including dogwoods, viburnums, serviceberry, cherries, hickories, butternut, and various oaks are purposely retained. On the other hand, invasive exotic plants are specifically targeted for control.

Invasive Plant Management

Invasive exotic plants are those that have been purposefully or unintentionally introduced into an area where they are not native. There are approximately 900 introduced plant species in Massachusetts. Most are benign and enjoyed as landscape and garden plants. Others however, spread rapidly, become difficult to control or eradicate, and degrade our natural plant communities by outcompeting native species for resources. In fact, invasive exotics have been implicated in contributing to the decline of 42% of those species listed as threatened or endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Habitat Program works to control invasive exotic plants on all project sites. In most cases, herbicides are used since they provide the most effective means of controlling invasive plants. Other, non-chemical techniques like hand pulling seedlings work in some instances. However, when root systems become well developed, techniques like pulling become less effective and can even contribute to a more severe invasion because mature root systems are difficult to pull out entirely, and root segments left in the soil often re-sprout vigorously. Additionally, the soil disturbance created after pulling out a plant creates a perfect bed for seeds of invasive exotic plants to germinate.

Herbicide applications are done by individuals (either contractors or MassWildlife staff) who are licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resource’s Pesticide Bureau. All applicable federal, state, and local regulations are followed during applications, including the Wetlands Protection Act.

Prescribed Fire

Historically, fire played a fundamental role in shaping certain portions of the Massachusetts landscape. In particular, glacial deposits of excessively well drained sand & gravel soils tend to be associated with relatively short fire intervals. These soil types occur primarily in coastal areas and in association with major river valleys, and lightning-caused fires and/or fires set by Native people in these areas historically maintained highly  productive wildlife habitats including heath lands, pitch pine/scrub oak barrens, and open canopy oak-pine woodlands. Decades of fire exclusion following European settlement resulted in the decline of numerous species and degradation of entire fire-associated ecosystems. In Massachusetts, some vegetation and habitats have evolved with fire and are best maintained with periodic burning, including some areas that are home to state- and federally-listed rare, endangered, or threatened species.Prescribed fire is used to restore and maintain these habitats..

The primary concerns for all prescribed burns are involve human safety and protection of built infrastructure. Planning is critical for every burn. Fire behavior and weather are monitored throughout the burn, and if the prescription parameters are exceeded the fire is “shut down”. Permits are required from the town fire chief and the air quality staff at DEP’s regional offices. The local fire chief can of course stop the fire at any time. There is a public meeting in most areas before prescribed burning is introduced. Abutting landowners are notified of fire dates, reasons, and expectations

Approximately 30% of the MESA-listed plant and animal species in Massachusetts benefit from the conditions created and maintained by fire. Natural Communities that benefit from prescribed burning includeSandplain Grassland, Sandplain Heathland, Scrub Oak Shrubland, Pitch pine-scrub oak, Ridgetop pitch pine-scrub oak, Calcareous fen, and Oak woodland.

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