– By Paul Rothbart, DEP Wildlife Division

Part II

Early Successional Stage Vegetation Management

The Habitat Management Program manages a diversity of early successional stage habitats comprised of old field, grassland, and agriculture. These habitats are rapidly declining due to natural forest succession, loss of farmlands, development, and the absence of fire within the Connecticut landscape. Associated with the decline of such habitats is a decline in species such as bobolink, meadowlark, savannah sparrow, blue-winged warbler, rufous-sided towhee, chestnut-sided warbler, ruffed grouse and woodcock. These diverse habitats provide countless hours of outdoor recreation for sportsmen, birdwatchers, and hikers.

Connecticut is dominated by maturing hardwood forests with a diminishing component of early successional stage habitats. Our goal is to develop a more varied vegetation age structure.

The Wildlife Division’s management techniques to enhance and/or restore such habitat include:

  • Tractor/brush mow 500 acres of old field habitat annually
  • Prescribed burning of 50-75 acres annually to maintain old fields and grassland habitat
  • Administer 60 agricultural leases to maintain farmland wildlife habitat on 1,500 acres
  • Brontosaurus contract (heavy drum type mower/mulching machine) to reclaim old fields
  • Establish cool and warm season grasslands where appropriate

These traditional practices are a key component in maintaining/enhancing critical early successional stage habitats. As with all our management activities, partnerships are always encouraged and have become a standard operational procedure. Due to a long ongoing partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a new funding opportunity for early successional stage habitat management has become a reality in Connecticut.

The 1996 Farm Bill has created this new opportunity. The Farm Bill is an accumulation of many diverse Acts, essentially considered the whole collection of U.S. Departmen5t of Agriculture programs, which is subject to periodic reviews and modification, by Congress. The 1996 Farm Bill was authorized for $2.5 billion per year for the period of 1999-2002. These monies fund over twenty programs ranging in scope from flood risk reduction, erosion stabilization, grazing incentives, watershed protection, wetlands restoration, riparian buffers, dairy waste management, grassland establishment, and wildlife habitat incentives. The Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a large-scale land retirement program that establishes permanent grass cover for wildlife on environmentally valuable cropland or marginal pasture for 10-15 years. Over the last two decades the Farm Bill programs have changed focus from being entirely agricultural production oriented, to a more comprehensive land management approach dealing with environmental quality and wildlife habitat issues. The most exciting aspect of the 1996 Farm Bill is that for the very first time the value of the wildlife resource was not only recognized under the auspices of other related programs, but was specifically identified and funded under a stand-alone program.

This new innovative program is the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). WHIP was developed to assist landowners to develop, restore, and protect wildlife habitat. Cost-share assistance is available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement a wide array of habitat projects. Priority habitats in Connecticut include grasslands, old fields, and invasive non-native vegetation control.

In addition to specific management projects the Division also influences early successional stage/agricultural habitat through the administration of agricultural leases on 1,500 acres of DEP properties. The objective of the Agricultural Agreement Program is to provide a diversity of early successional stage wildlife habitat on DEP property in a cost-effective manner. In exchange for utilizing state-owned agricultural lands, farmers enter into an agreement with the Wildlife Division to enhance wildlife habitat by planting, leaving crops, or mowing fields. Wildlife species that benefit from these agricultural lands include turkey, pheasants, quail, cottontail rabbit, bluebirds, bobolinks, and song sparrows.

Wetland Habitat Management

The Habitat Program manages approximately 90 inland marshes throughout the State. The majority of these impoundments were constructed in the 1950s and 60s and many are now in need of repair. The passage of the stat’s Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp Program in 1993 established a source of revenue necessary to conduct many valuable wetland projects. These revenues, generated from the sate of State duck stamps and associated artwork, are deposited in a dedicated fund, exclusively for wetland projects.

The Duck Stamp Program is in conjunction with our conservation partners who have funded many Habitat Management Program restoration/enhancement/maintenance projects such as:

  • Water control structures
  • Phragmites and cattail vegetation control
  • Pothole development
  • 1,500 wood duck nest boxes maintained statewide
  • Beaver impoundment water level management

Connecticut ‘s wetland management efforts are a prime example of what a coordinated effort between State, Federal conservation organizations, and private individuals can accomplish when addressing a common goal.

Forest Habitat Management

Connecticut consists of over sixty percent forested habitat. The Wildlife Division provides habitat recommendations on all State

Forest Management Plans. The division also works cooperatively with the Forestry Division to develop Forest Vegetation Management Plans on many of our WMA’s. Management goals are to perpetuate a healthy and diverse forest ecosystem. Large-scale cost-effective habitat management can be achieved through coordinated land use planning. Silvicultural practices create a varied age structure and diversity of tree species. A number of specific wildlife habitat enhancement practices such as maintaining vegetation buffers, releasing aspen and alder trees, and retaining snag and den trees can be incorporated into a forest management plan. In general, our large non-fragmented forestlands are extremely valuable to neotropical migratory songbirds such as scarlet tanagers, black and white warblers, ovenbirds, and re-eyed vireos. The smaller and fragmented parcels can be valuable for many early successional stage shrub dependent species such as woodcock, rufous-sided towhees, blue-winged warblers, and chestnut-sided warblers. These factors are all considered when formulating a management plan.

Forest management planning can be an effective tool to meet specific forest wildlife habitat objectives. By developing a mosaic of age classes through forest cutting ruffed grouse populations can be enhanced. Home range of the ruffed grouse varies from 15-40 acres depending on habitat quality. Early successional stage hardwood forests are prime ruffed grouse habitat. There are three critical age classes of forest: 0-10 used as brood cover; 10-25 winter and breeding cover and 25+ for food and nesting and winter cover. These age classes must be located within a 15-20 acre area known as an activity center. A typical forest management cutting design would be based on 20acres blacks subdivided into 5 acre sections managed on a forty-year cycle. This design will provide the critical age structure necessary for optimum ruffed grouse habitat.

Habitat Management Program Funding and Cooperators

Connecticut ‘s Wildlife Management Programs receive most of their financial support for the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Program. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program collects an excise tax on sporting arms, handguns, ammunition, and archery equipment and distributes this money to state wildlife agencies for wildlife management and restoration. To enhance our management capabilities the Wildlife Division has developed an excellent relationship with many cooperators from Connecticut’s diverse conservation community. The Wildlife Division extends our appreciation to the many partners who provide funding, technical expertise, and/or volunteer services necessary to carry out many of our essential habitat projects.

DEP Wildlife Division Partners

  • Connecticut Waterfowl Association Department of Corrections
  • Department of Transportation Ducks Unlimited
  • Dr. John E. Flaherty Field Trial Association Farm Service Agency
  • Waterfowler’s Inc. National Wild Turkey Association
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service Nod Brook Field Trail Association
  • Ruffed Grouse Society UCONN Cooperative Extension Service
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Valley Shore
  • Wildlife Forever