Charlie Nichols likes to hunt for grouse and turkeys. He despairs that those birds’ numbers are dwindling in West Virginia, but believes he knows exactly how to change that.
“It’s simple, really,” he said. “Our forests need to get younger.”
Seventy-eight percent of the state’s land area is forested — mostly with trees so old they will, within our lifetimes, begin to decline. As they decline, they will produce fewer and fewer of the nuts and fruits wildlife rely upon for survival. Nichols worries that no one will be allowed to cut those aging, over-the-hill trees, and that no young, food-rich new forest will be allowed to grow.
“There are very few wildlife species that need old-growth forest habitat,” he explained. “We used to think that turkey and bears needed old growth, but we’ve since learned that’s not the case. The biggest bears in the state are found along the edges of the forest in places like Paint Creek, and we have large flocks of turkeys living in the suburbs of some of our largest cities.”
Nichols, a past president of the West Virginia arm of the National Wild Turkey Federation, said deer, grouse, turkeys, songbirds and many other species thrive best in what foresters call “early successional habitat,” with young trees and open areas covered with fresh green growth.
“Early successional habitat is especially important for young turkeys, grouse and songbirds,” he added. “They don’t necessarily need it year-round, but there are times in their lives when they absolutely have to have it. When turkey and grouse poults hatch, they need protein. They get that protein from insects, and early successional habitat is where you find most of the insects.”
Evidence exists that young grouse and turkeys suffer relatively high mortality rates. Nichols blames a near-statewide lack of young growth for those rates.
“In Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, biologists found that turkey hens were literally walking the legs off their poults trying to cover enough ground to find insects. That’s not good. We have to do better than that,” he said.
The problems, Nichols believes, are easy to solve — at least in theory. In practice they’ve proven considerably more difficult.
“We need to actively manage our forests,” he said. “We need to be cutting enough trees and creating enough young growth for wildlife to survive. If we don’t, when the productive, mature trees currently in our forests eventually decline, the wildlife populations we enjoy today will collapse.”
The problem is particularly acute on the state’s public lands, where layers of bureaucratic red tape must be unraveled to cut even the smallest amounts of timber.
“On the Monongahela National Forest, in our state forests and on state-managed Wildlife Management Areas, the majority of our hardwood trees are 75 to 100 years old,” Nichols said. “The [Monongahela] plan calls for 13 to 25 percent of the forest to be kept in early successional habitat. They’re way, way behind that goal, and they’re falling farther behind with each passing year.”
The problem began in the 1970s, when members of a growing environmental movement began protesting the presence of clear-cuts on National Forest land.
“That got everyone into the mindset that all clear-cuts are bad, even though studies showed that the best wildlife habitat they had was created through clear-cutting,” Nichols explained. “Then in the 1986 forest plan, [U.S. Forest Service officials] adopted the philosophy of managing the forest mainly for recreational use. [Wildlife officials] thought they would still be allowed to make small cuts for wildlife-habitat purposes, but lawsuits have been filed to prevent even that.”
Constraints aren’t as severe for state-managed areas, where Division of Natural Resources officials have begun a program of small-scale clear-cutting designed to create more early successional habitat. Agency foresters would like to cut 2,000 acres a year of the 435,000 acres the agency controls, but so far they have yet to reach that goal.
“Realistically, they can only cut on about 250,000 of those 435,000 acres because some of the lands are leased from companies or individuals, and others are on state forests where special no-timbering provisions have been put in place,” Nichols said.
“And there are other restrictions, too. Cutting isn’t allowed in May, June, July or August because there’s a danger of disturbing [endangered] Indiana bat habitat. Even when a cut gets planned, it has to go through 16 separate [governmental] approvals before it can actually take place.”
In addition to timber cutting, Nichols would like to see DNR officials undertake other habitat-enhancement methods on wildlife management areas. “We need to do more prescribed burning and less brush-hogging. We need to get rid of all the Kentucky 31 [fescue grass] that’s been planted and replace it with [edible grasses like] big and little bluestem. We need to plant buffer areas with clover, and we need to plant areas with millet, milo and sorghum,” he said.
Nichols believes state and federal officials can’t afford to wait much longer to begin large-scale wildlife habitat enhancement.
“We’re behind the curve right now, and the longer we put off creating young growth, the harder it will be to get our forests healthy and productive again,” he said.