Panhandle Wildlife Habitat Management
Tools Used To Manage Habitat
There are 5 basic tools (axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun) used for managing wildlife communities. The key to managing natural resources is to use a holistic approach, where all of these Tools are applied to develop and maintain healthy ecosystems. Single species deserve less attention, while the system in which they thrive requires more. Knowing how that system functions, and applying the techniques with which that system developed (e.g., moderate cattle grazing, prescribed burning, hunting) is imperative for its continued existence.
The encroachment of woody plant species has had a tremendous impact on ecosystems across Texas, causing a decrease in plant species diversity and an increase in soil erosion and water loss through transpiration. Honey mesquite for example loses a significant amount of precipitation through transpiration.
Landowners have been controlling mesquite in the Rolling Plains for decades, and continue to find out how tenacious the tree is. Cutting mesquite only topkills the plant allowing it to resprout from the root collar left in the ground
Initial treatment of mesquites required mechanical control. For years, mesquite was removed by pushing (with bulldozers), and chaining. However, resprouts caused more dense stands to replace solitary trees. This meant that the root collar had to be removed to completely eradicate a tree. This requires grubbing with a dozer or chemical treatments. Although quite expensive, these methods have since become mainstream in the eradication of mesquite in the Rolling Plains. Grubbing is more selective than spraying but is very slow.
There are also hydraulic shears, which allow for selective removal, minimal soil disturbance, and efficient work. Many claim that they can remove at least as many trees, usually more, with shears as they can with doziers, in the same period of time. Furthermore, the cost of shearing is no more than the cost of other mechanical methods. Rates tend to range from $55-75/acre, and operators can cut an acre/hour in flat to gently rolling terrain.
Following are some considerations of major importance when planning a brush management program:
- The program should not adversely impact endangered species or their habitat.
- Extreme care should be taken to insure that too much wildlife cover is not destroyed.
- The method used should improve wildlife food supply and habitat.
- Removal of desirable plant species should be minimal.
- The program should be economically feasible and comply with the overall goals of the management plan.
- Plant diversity and general health and vigor of the range should be increased.
- Areas which support winter turkey roosts should remain totally intact.
- Treatments that disturb soils should not be applied to highly erodible sites.
Bison roamed Texas through mid to late 1800s, leaving quite an impact on the landscape. Historical reports indicate that bison herd were strung-out 90 miles in length, as it took 3 days to travel from one end of the herd to the other. One report mentions that settlers traveling from Fredericksburg to Mason, had to turn back because there was not enough grass left (after the bison moved through) to feed their horses. While such grazing pressure left a lot of tilled soil, resting periods (of the rangeland) were sufficient to allow for rapid responses of annual forbs (weeds & wildflowers) and grasses. Resulting was more plant diversity and more wildlife foods. Bison opened stands of dense grasses, providing more food for deer, turkey, quail, prairie chicken, and songbirds. Undoubtedly, bison grazing was a major force that shaped the ecosystem.
European settlement thrived during the ?Golden Period? when grasslands were lush and seemed capable of supporting an unlimited number of livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, oxen, hogs, horses). More normal years followed, when rainfall was scarce and overgrazing was common. This resulted in abused rangelands lacking adequate groundcover and available browse to support healthy livestock and wildlife populations. Midgrass and tallgrass communities were replaced with shortgrass communities. Overgrazing with domestic livestock has continued through the 20th century and many rangelands continue to suffer.
As Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1933 textbook titled Game Management, "...game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it - ax, plow, cow, fire, and gun." Leopold often referred to the "cow" as an effective wildlife management tool. Cattle can be used as a tool to manipulate and enhance wildlife habitat and plant diversity (as bison did). The main role of grazing in a wildlife management program is to reduce the quantity of grass, allowing sunlight to reach the lower growing forbs, which are important wildlife foods. Furthermore, this process creates more structural diversity, which is more conducive to nesting, brood rearing, and hiding.
Range improvement can be attained through proper grazing rates and by scheduled rest periods to allow pastures to be free of grazing by domestic livestock. Rotational grazing systems should allow pastures to be rested (deferred) during a specified time of the year. Some examples of grazing options in order of preference are: a short duration or "time control" system; a high intensity - low frequency system (HILF); a 3 pasture-1 herd system, and the 4 pasture-3 herd rotational grazing system. Each requires different degrees of involvement and fencing. Professionals from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Texas Agricultural Extension Service, and/or Texas Parks and Wildlife can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each system.
Tilling the soil is another approach to setting-back plant succession and promote the growth of desirable wildlife foods (forbs). As mentioned above, bison tilled the soil as they grazed through areas, promoting more plant diversity. Plant diversity increases the overall health of a habitat thereby benefitting all species that utilize that habitat. For example, by creating strip disks when managing for quail, brooding cover and food sources are created due to increased forb production. Strip disking also creates edge habitat that benefits many generalist species such as deer and small mammals and rodents.
Bison were not the only force shaping the system in which pronghorn antelope, black bear, wolf, white-tailed deer, turkey, quail, and prairie chicken thrived. Fires, natural and man-made, played an integral role in managing that system. Since the 1850s, man has suppressed fire, and the grasslands that were once dotted with an occasional mesquite or juniper have been replaced by parklands and woodlands. Redberry juniper has spread from the steep draws and canyons and exploited the uplands.
A prescribed burn program that is used properly with a grazing deferment program and deer harvest management, is an effective tool for managing wildlife habitat. Burning increases plant quantity and quality, and enhances habitat diversity. Many plant species are tolerant of fire. Others require fire for adequate germination. juniper is not a fire tolerant plant. It was controlled by the frequent wildfires that occurred before European settlement. Europeans suppressed fire to prevent damage to wooden structures, farmlands, fences, and grazing lands. That eliminated or reduced the role that fire played in maintaining an ecosystem that was not dominated by juniper or mesquite. Formerly restricted to steep rough areas where fire couldn't reach, juniper is rarely eaten by deer or livestock and quickly invades all sites in the absence of fire.
Burned pastures can be grazed immediately to reduce grasses that compete with forbs, then deferred to allow the pasture to rest. Browsing wildlife species numbers may have to be reduced prior to burning to allow preferred plants to reestablish following prescribed fire. Portions of the property should be left in permanently unburned cover to insure that plants intolerant of fire are part of the ecosystem diversity. A burning schedule should be maintained to give priority to burning in the winter and early spring before green-up. Even with the best planning, burning "windows of opportunity" always depend on humidity, wind, and fuel moisture. The inexperienced manager should ask for assistance and/or advice from agencies such as TPW or the NRCS. While instructional materials are available, it is suggested that the novice assist on a burn conducted by an experienced person before attempting the first controlled burn.
Hunting is an important tool available to landowners to help maintain a balance between healthy game populations and the ability of the habitat to support these populations. Ungulate species such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope are popular game animals in the Panhandle region of Texas. In fact, only in western Texas, and primarily in the Panhandle and Trans-Pecos regions of Texas, will hunters find populations of these 3 game species available for hunting. Much of the land in the Panhandle region of Texas is cultivated in energy-rich, high protein crops such as corn, sorghum, wheat, and alfalfa. Though croplands are important sources of food for mule deer, white-tailed deer, and pronghorn antelope, excessive use of these areas by these species may cause economic loss to landowners. These croplands may also support more individual deer or antelope than would the native habitat. In populations where management does not occur, animal numbers would soon build to levels exceeding range carrying capacity resulting in habitat abuse, starvation, and death. Habitat degradation would also impact the food and cover required by other game and non-game species of wildlife. A regulated harvest helps assure that there is plenty of food and cover for the number of animals present on the range. Hunting is also an important tool used for population management of game species. Density, sex ratio, and age structure should be considered when managing deer and antelope. Done properly, management of game populations can lead to the harvest of higher quality (body weight, antler development) individuals, higher reproductive rates, and higher landowner revenues.
For further information click here to locate a Wildlife Biologist in your county.