Wildlife Management Conflicts – Monitoring Habitat Succession

In order to assure that we retain wildlife habitat values while watching over species that have special regulatory status or modify land management practices under carbon management programs, wildlife managers need to do more than measure volumes of habitat. They must also monitor habitat succession, or some of our most valuable habitat will diminish with no loss of acreage. This can happen before land managers can figure out what happened.

Conservation would not exist if it were not for some form of conflict or shortage. Nobody would ever think to conserve, if everything remained plentiful forever.

Built into the natural world are conflicts between wildlife. The classic example is predator and prey.

DSC_0503 coyote

It is also common for species to compete for habitat. Competition between predators for limited prey is an example. Competition between species for limited food is normal.

Evolution created limits to competition so similar species could fit into niches of its own. Members of the deer family compete to a certain extent, but they also differ in ways so that they can coexist in the same habitat. For example, mule deer and elk are both deer, but mule deer are primarily browsers while elk are grazers.

blacktail tending doe

When man entered the program he modified habitat for his own benefit. Eventually man also became aware that conservation was necessary in order to have abundant wildlife.

Hunters were at the forefront of many early conservation efforts and game animals as well as many non-game species, benefited. Government set aside land for wildlife using hunter’s dollars. As a result, game populations rose and hunters and non-hunters reaped the rewards. Most North American Big Game flourished. Waterfowl numbers increased and systems for measuring numbers of migratory birds were developed.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Today, conservation is taking a step further. As man steps in to deal with current conservation issues, a another type of conflict is rising. This conflict is only a serious problem if it goes too far, but in order to determine just how far it should go, the problem must first be acknowledged.

The problem is conversion of habitat from early succession to late succession and it has always affected land that has been mismanaged or unattended. Land that has the potential to be excellent wildlife habitat can become nearly worthless if left unattended. With no manipulation of the land to recycle it from mature plants to early-growth plants, habitat can become useless as a wildlife food source.

Tule elk are much more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Through hunter’s efforts, tule elk are more numerous today that they were a century ago.

Development of government programs guided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has created a powerful tool for the benefit of non-game species. Now we have Cap and Trade, which seeks to mitigate for carbon emissions. It also is a powerful conservation tool.

Incorporated in these programs is the potential for unnecessary habitat conflict. As government-held land turns its management goals towards managing for single species and old growth habitat, some of the success created by established habitat management may be lost.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

Pheasants and ducks benefit from early succession habitats.

The concept of habitat succession is the basis for much wildlife conservation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_succession

With limited lands managed for wildlife, government mandates can force land management away from early succession to late succession habitat. As that happens, hunter-funded habitat management from which  game animals have benefited can be converted to management for habitat which benefits primarily special status species. Cap and Trade programs can lead to an emphasis on late succession habitat that is intended to offset carbon emissions. This process has begun, but it is not yet widely recognized.

Each time a new species is declared threatened or endangered, a new set of management mandates is incorporated into wildlife management programs. These new mandates trump traditional management and can gradually swing habitat management away from early succession growth to old growth habitat. Old growth habitat benefits fewer species and generally not game species.

A management change from early succession to old growth does not create immediate change. Habitat creep continues until suddenly there becomes an awareness that something is wrong. Therefore competition between habitat types may not be identified until a significant portion of habitat has been converted away from prime wildlife habitat. Within a few years, some targeted species may gain, while many will lose. If not appropriately monitored, habitat creep will be difficult to identify as a cause of decline in habitat value.

The first step is make sure that land is not converted from habitat managed for early succession to habitat managed for late succession. Instead, habitat for late succession dwellers should be created from land that is not already set aside as wildlife habitat. That way the creation of  late succession habitat will be in addition to early succession habitat and there will be no net loss of valuable habitat for game and non-game animals that thrive in early succession habitat.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chapparal on our ranch. Although it spends most of it's time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within the stand of mature bushes.

The Alameda whipsnake is a species that thrives in old growth chaparral on our ranch. Although it spends most of its time in the brush, it hunts for lizards along the grassland edge and rock outcroppings within stands of mature bushes.

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