NEWS

Take advantage of fall weather for habitat management

Chris Young

During the here and now of peak hunting season, no one wants to look ahead to next year and beyond.

But between forays into the woods, there should be time to think about habitat management as a way to guarantee good harvests far into the future – either of timber or game.

The weather is comfortable for physical work, and for the most part – the bugs are gone.

Fall historically is the time when prairie and woodland burns occurred. It’s also a great time to get a handle on invasive species. Non-native invaders are the second biggest reason native species become endangered after habitat loss.

Many invasive plants stay green long after their native counterparts have gone dormant, making identification easy and cutting the wrong thing by mistake less likely.

It’s also a time to gather seeds to plant later or supplement an ongoing project.

Invasive species

Birds rapidly spread honeysuckle when they eat the bright red berries and deposit the seeds perfectly prepared to germinate in their droppings.

Native to Korea, Japan and China, bush honeysuckle can fill in the forest under-story, shading out young trees and smothering spring wildflowers.

It stays green and at this time of year is very easy to spot, cut and treat.

Other invasive plants, such as autumn olive, also stay green. Government experts once recommended autumn olive as a great plant for wildlife. Land managers have been fighting a constant battle against it ever since. Look for leaves with silvery undersides.

Garlic mustard is sending up basal rosettes, growing low to the ground in preparation for next year’s growing season.

Winter creeper is another landscape plant that can become invasive. For the convenience of land managers, it also stays green late in the season.

Fall burns

American Indians burned the prairies for centuries before Europeans arrived on the scene.

They burned to clear land for growing crops and stimulate fresh growth to attract game. They also set ring fires around animals to drive them to an opening where the hunting party was waiting.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set the prairies ablaze whenever they wanted to attract attention of Indians during their expedition up the Missouri River more than 200 years ago. They literally used fire as a communication tool to summon leaders for meetings.

The weather has been wet this fall, but the prairies and woods dried out nicely during a weeklong stretch of sunshine – opening a very brief window of opportunity.

These days, however, conventional wisdom dictates most burns occur in spring.

There are pros and cons to when burns take place. Spring burns have been favored because they leave cover for wildlife throughout the winter. Fall burns get the nod for helping promote the growth of flowering plants by keeping grasses in check.

Most often, weather dictates the timing of burns as crews pay especially close attention to temperature, wind speed and direction and humidity.

Seeding

If some plants are missing from the prairie matrix, or if more diversity is desired, a frost seeding following a burn can give those supplemental seeds a chance to overwinter – a process called stratification that triggers germination the following spring. Some seeds that sit inside all winter won’t sprout until they spend at least one winter outside – or at least in the refrigerator.

New prairies can be seeded down with a cover crop, like an annual rye, to keep the soil in place and weeds in check so slow growing prairie seedlings have the best possible chance to establish.

Successful landowners

The work can be time consuming and frustrating, but some have risen to the challenge. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced its Wildlife Landowners of the Year recently.

Honorees made use of a variety of conservation programs including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and found help from local conservation organizations and non-profit groups.

Winners include:

Dan Sawicki, Ogle County

Pat Hogan, Kendall County

Roy and Kim Tsuda, Macon and DeWitt Counties

Michael and Gail Cochran, Brown County

Tim and Bill Rengel, Saline County

Fighting the good fight

The good news is that one doesn’t have to go into this battle alone. Plenty of resources are available. Some conservation groups may even help landowners by splitting the cost of seeds and equipment.

DNRs’ Acres for Wildlife Program is one place to start. Visit: www.dnr.state.il.us/orc/Wildliferesources/AFW/

Chris Young can be reached atchris.young@sj-r.com.