FLATWOODS, W.Va. — Creating habitat for wildlife can’t be that hard.
Cut some trees, get rid of some invasive shrubs and ... voila! Critters live happily ever after, right?
In theory, that’s how it’s supposed to work; in reality, it’s a lot tougher than that. Five years into a statewide push to create more habitat, West Virginia wildlife officials are struggling to meet their own goals as well as the expectations of sportsmen clamoring for results.
The difficulties became apparent at the Division of Natural Resources’ recent Upland Habitat Management Day, a gathering of biologists, wildlife managers, foresters and interested sportsmen. DNR officials called the meeting to showcase the progress they’re making toward improving habitat for deer, turkeys, grouse, songbirds and other forest creatures. But after a few pointed questions from sportsmen and foresters, DNR administrators acknowledged that the program isn’t yet producing as much habitat as expected.
“Doing forest management on public land isn’t easy,” said Gary Foster, the agency’s game management supervisor.
DNR officials’ goal is to create “early successional” habitat — young, thickly growing forest where the predominant species are low-growing plants, thick shrubs and lots of trees at the sapling or “pole” stage of growth. To get that kind of new growth requires cutting away mature trees and allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor.
The DNR has the authority to arrange timber cuts on 68 of 90 state-owned or -managed wildlife management areas. Of the 288,000 acres those lands encompass, roughly 175,000 can be logged. Agency officials have set a goal to cut about 2,000 acres a year — 1,500 through commercial timber sales and an additional 400 to 500 in non-commercial cuts.
“Every bit [of cutting] is designed to create wildlife habitat,” said Paul Johansen, the agency’s acting wildlife chief. “Do some of these cuts generate revenue? You bet they do. But the primary objective is to create wildlife habitat by creating openings for young forest to grow.”
Setting a goal of 2,000 acres a year and actually reaching it are two separate things, however. The sheer number of approvals required for each timber sale, coupled with the state’s complicated bidding and purchasing procedures, have hindered the DNR’s habitat-creation effort.
Foster said every sale must be approved by the DNR director, the governor, the attorney general and the Division of Culture and History. The potential impact on endangered species must be determined, and surety bonds must be secured.
Even then, the sale isn’t necessarily a done deal. If the market is soft for the type of timber that is to be cut, logging contractors might be slow to take on the project. The loggers must also be willing to perform the cuts before April 1 and after Aug. 15 in order to minimize impacts on maternity colonies of endangered Indiana bats.
Johansen said some of the obstacles that plagued the program early-on have been taken care of. The DNR now owns several pieces of heavy equipment that wildlife managers need to create wildlife clearings where timber sales aren’t possible or feasible. Agency officials now have the ability to lump several small cuts into a single contract that totals up to 100 acres, which helps attract more interest from timber buyers.
“I think we’ve worked the wrinkles out of this thing,” Johansen added. “We’ve made the process as smooth as possible. Now we need to get it done.”
He said this year’s goal seemed within reach until two months ago, when Terry Jones — the agency’s forester — decided to retire. A replacement has not yet been hired. Until one is, progress toward this year’s habitat goals will be slowed.
A few sportsmen at the meeting complained that the DNR’s goals aren’t ambitious enough.
“We need a much higher rate [of cutting], or else we might be the last generation of West Virginians to hunt grouse,” said Charlie Nichols.
The DNR’s Foster defended his agency’s plan, calling it “very aggressive, given the constraints of the system.”
Nearly everyone at the workshop — hunters, foresters and DNR personnel — lamented that more than 900,000 acres of national forest land in West Virginia have essentially become off-limits to habitat creation through timber cutting. Foster said cutting, once routine and common on the Monongahela, George Washington and Jefferson national forests, has lessened dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years.
“The annual timber harvest in our national forests has significantly declined since the 1970s and ‘80s,” he said. “Back then, cutting exceeded 40 million board feet a year. In some recent years, fewer than 5 million board feet have been cut.”
According to a Forest Service research paper on timber values, trees the size of those in West Virginia yield 2,000 to 4,000 board feet of timber per acre. By that measure, 1,250 to 2,500 acres of national forest land are being cut per year.
“That’s far, far less than the national forest management plan calls for,” said Keith Krantz, the DNR’s turkey project leader. “But every time [Forest Service officials] propose a decent-sized timber cut, they get threatened with a lawsuit. You can’t blame them for being gun-shy.”
Even if a proposed national-forest cut gets past the initial feeling-out stages, an environmental assessment must be performed, and in recent years funding that might otherwise have been earmarked for assessments has been diverted for other firefighting and other uses.
Several of the hunters and foresters at the habitat workshop voiced frustration at the lack of habitat-creating timber cutting on national forest land.
Frank Jezioro, a former DNR director and an avid grouse hunter, said sportsmen need to become more active in shaping Forest Service policy.
“Every time [Forest Service officials] hold a public hearing about a proposed timber sale, 40 people from the environmental community show up to oppose it and only a couple of foresters show up to advocate for it,” Jezioro said. “Sportsmen have the [forest management plan, which calls for more cutting] on their side; they need to start showing up en masse to support cuts that would create wildlife habitat.”
Until that happens, however, most of the habitat creation scheduled for the next five years will take place on DNR-managed lands.
Those include 700 acres on Wetzel County’s Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area, 510 acres on Wyoming County’s R.D Bailey WMA, 475 acres on Lewis County’s Stonewall Jackson WMA, 425 acres on Braxton County’s Elk River WMA, 405 acres on Berkeley and Morgan counties’ Sleepy Creek WMA, 400 acres each on McDowell County’s Panther WMA and Wayne County’s East Lynn WMA, and many smaller cuts throughout the state. All told, the cuts — if completed — will total 7,209 acres.
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.