Manage Your CRP Pine Plantations for Wildlife
Jeff Jackson, Extension Forest Resources
Beginning about 10 years ago (1985) the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) paid landowners to convert cropland to planted pines. Now these pines are approaching the size where they will benefit from timber management practices such as thinning and fire. If you have such pines, you can improve habitat for certain favorite wildlife by making some modifications in your timber management plan.
Pine plantations established on former cropland are often poor wildlife habitats for many species. That's because the land where pines were planted had much of its natural vegetation removed from the previous land use. Management for wildlife can restore some of that lost vegetation.
Pine plantation edge habitat -- where the forest meets the field -- has extra value for certain game such as deer, quail and rabbits, as well as some songbirds like the indigo bunting, the yellow breasted chat and numerous others. Small mammals like the cotton rat and deer mouse are also abundant along such edges. Fox and bobcats hunt these edges where they find an abundance of prey. The action is on the edge.
The extra value of pine plantation edges does not come from the pines, rather it comes from the greater diversity of associated vegetation that grows along the edge of the field. This variety of edge vegetation results from the extra sunlight energy that edge plants soak up as compared to understory plants in the interior of the stand where the pines shade out much of the low growing competition.
Valuable edge vegetation includes fruit producing small trees like dogwoods, hawthorns, crab apples, persimmons, wild cherry, red mulberry, wild plum and others. Most of these trees will be mature enough to provide fruit by age 10 years. Along the edge, you may also have saplings of larger trees such as oaks, honey locust and hickories which will produce food for wildlife later on. Of course, these children of forest giants will grow up doing what forests do -- ever taking over the inside edge, advancing the edge outward. Shrubs with special wildlife value for edges include bicolor lespedeza, blackberries, autumn olive, beautyberry, sumac, blueberry, wax myrtle and many others. Some landowners got paid to include many of these species in their original CRP planting plan. If there are no such trees and other plants volunteering in along the edge of your pines, you can plant them. There are also dozens of kinds of smaller herbaceous plants that add diversity to your pine plantation edges.
Manage Edge Vegetation
Do not farm right to the edge of the pines. Allow the edge to advance somewhat into the field to make a border. Manage this border by mowing, disking, thinning, planting, and cutting. Consider the following ideas.
The Interior of the Plantation
The interior of dense, shady pine plantations can be improved for many species of wildlife by getting more light to the forest floor and by creating islands of diversity in the pine stand. Generally speaking, a ground cover of bare pine needles isn't nearly as good for wildlife as a dense understory of blackberries, lespedezas, beggarweeds and other wildlife food and cover plants. Thinning and the use of prescribed fire can open the stand to enough sunlight to support cover plants. Create edges in the interior by clearing small openings.
As the plantation matures, allow some hardwood trees to grow within the stand. Scattered large pines interspersed with various species of hardwoods should gradually increase richness of wildlife species that inhabit the plantation. If you manage your CRP pines for wildlife, you will, in general, have better hunting and more of certain kinds of wildlife than if you manage it exclusively for timber.