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Partners program helps increase future Kirtland's warbler habitat
Midwest Region, April 24, 2013
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Partners biologist Mark Pfost briefs volunteers on planting plan. Map shows all of the openings (small and large circles) that volunteers were preparing to plant.
Partners biologist Mark Pfost briefs volunteers on planting plan. Map shows all of the openings (small and large circles) that volunteers were preparing to plant. - Photo Credit: Dan Peterson
Volunteers spread across the project area with buckets of native seed. Volunteers scattered a couple handfuls of seed in each opening.
Volunteers spread across the project area with buckets of native seed. Volunteers scattered a couple handfuls of seed in each opening. - Photo Credit: Dan Peterson
Volunteers walked across trenches and timber slash to in order to scatter native seeds in the openings.
Volunteers walked across trenches and timber slash to in order to scatter native seeds in the openings. - Photo Credit: Dan Peterson
Plum Creek crews planted over 200,000 jack pine (insert) and red pine seedlings across the four treatment areas. Trees will be of a height to attract Kirtland's warblers in about 5 years.
Plum Creek crews planted over 200,000 jack pine (insert) and red pine seedlings across the four treatment areas. Trees will be of a height to attract Kirtland's warblers in about 5 years. - Photo Credit: Mark Pfost
Planting crew-from left to right: Mark Pfost (Partners biologist); Kris Yager, Bob and Mary Vethe (Friends of Necedah NWR); Kate Yamahiro, Clifford Borner the 2nd, Adam Marbes (AmeriCorps volunteers); Mary Jane Bean (President of Friends group); Dan Peterson, Audrey Traver (Friends of Necedah NWR)
Planting crew-from left to right: Mark Pfost (Partners biologist); Kris Yager, Bob and Mary Vethe (Friends of Necedah NWR); Kate Yamahiro, Clifford Borner the 2nd, Adam Marbes (AmeriCorps volunteers); Mary Jane Bean (President of Friends group); Dan Peterson, Audrey Traver (Friends of Necedah NWR) - Photo Credit: Will Erickson

Adams County Wisconsin may be a future conservation success story for Kirtland’s warblers due to the on-going partnership between a timber company, state and federal wildlife agencies, a conservation foundation, and volunteers. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife (Partners) program was one of those involved—most recently by planting native vegetation.

The Adams County story actually began in 2007 when a biologist walking across land owned by Plum Creek Timberland L. P. heard an unknown call, and found it to be a singing male Kirtland’s warbler. Eventually three nests were found on Plum Creek land that season. Until then, excepting the rare sighting, Kirtland’s warblers had only been found in Michigan. The warblers nested in the northern Lower Peninsula, but in 1994 nests were discovered in the Upper Peninsula. (Kirtland’s warblers winter in the Bahamas.) Although never abundant, the warbler’s population ebbed to a low of 201 males in 1951. Today, the population has close to 2,000 males (females do not sing, but a 1:1 sex ratio is assumed). Two factors inhibit population growth on the breeding grounds: lack of suitable habitat and cowbird nest parasitism. Some evidence suggests that alteration of wintering habitat may also contribute.

 

Kirtland’s warblers have specific nesting habitat requirements. They require large (> 80 acres) areas of early successional pine forest—and rely almost exclusively on jack pine. The warblers nest on the ground beneath young pines which allows sunlight to reach the ground, enabling forbs and grasses to grow beneath the trees. Once a pine is about twenty years old (~16’ tall) it begins to self-prune; the lower branches fall off and sunlight no longer reaches the ground beneath the tree to support herbaceous vegetation which causes warblers to abandon the site. Because jack pine has lower economic value it has been replaced in many areas with red pine. All of these circumstances account for a lack of suitable habitat.

Cowbird parasitism is the second factor slowing warbler population growth, but controlling cowbird numbers helps. Cowbird control has been used to increase Kirtland’s warblers’ numbers in Michigan since 1972, and has been used for the same purpose in Wisconsin since 2007. Plum Creek, Wisconsin DRN, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Foundation, and both the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services (ES) office and Partners for Fish and Wildlife program provided funds, labor, and/or expertise to reduce cowbird numbers where warblers nest in Adams County.

This helped the population grow, but did not address the lack of suitable habitat. Biologists and foresters from ES, WIDNR, and Plum Creek designed a forest management plan to increase the amount of, and improve warbler habitat quality. The design will also provide a means to test warblers’ habitat preferences in the future.

The project area encompassed 360 acres, divided into areas with four different tree-planting regimes. In 2012, Plum Creek harvested trees from the site and prepared it so that it would be ready to plant another crop of seedlings. A trencher prepared rows for planting but the trencher was lifted off the ground at intervals to create tree-less openings. Openings were either 50’ or 100’ in diameter (271 and 127 respectively across the 360 acres). The Partners for Fish and Wildlife program took on the job of planting these openings with a mix of species native to jack pine barrens. The mix included approximately thirty-five species of grasses and forbs. Forbs were chosen from different families and genera to provide variation in structure and flowering characteristics. About two-thirds of the larger openings were mechanically shredded to provide better soil to seed contact. Some of the larger openings were planted with a tractor and a broadcast seeder.

On April 24, six Friends of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and three members of AmeriCorps sowed seeds, by hand, in the all the remaining openings. These volunteers strung out in a skirmish line, roughly 50 yards apart, and trudged through trenches and slash until arriving at an opening where each volunteer would scatter a couple of handfuls of seed—over and over again, until all openings had been seeded.

Days later, Plum Creek crews planted more than 200,000 pine trees, both reds and jacks. In one treatment area, both species were planted in a pattern of alternating rows; and jack pines were planted around each opening’s periphery. Planting regimens varied in the other three treatment areas—one had red pine rows with jack pine around edges of openings, another, all red pine, and the fourth, all jack pine. This design will allow future researchers to test warbler nesting preferences, and may lead to additional habitat improvement that is also economically viable.

This type of project will become increasingly more important for conservation. Conservation cannot only happen on public lands set aside for that purpose—there just isn’t enough land or money to do so. When multiple agencies, conservation organizations, volunteers and large landowners work together, wildlife and its habitat benefit.

Plum Creek has gone “above and beyond” to foster wildlife conservation for Kirtland’s warblers, and other wildlife—including endangered Karner blue butterflies in Adams County. They have offered up 9,168 acres (two parcels) into the Central Sands Pines Forest Legacy Easement. This includes 1,639 acres in the Kirtland’s warbler project area. Lands under these proposed easements will remain working forestry lands—meaning timber production will continue, but these lands are protected from development forever. The U.S. Forest Service’s Legacy funding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Endangered Species grant, and the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program are potential funding sources for the easement. The easement has wide support and is nearing completion.

This project will be highlighted at The Wildlife Society’s annual meeting in Milwaukee this fall with a poster presentation showcasing the benefits of such projects to a continental audience of wildlife biologists. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife program is proud to have been a part of this project.


Contact Info: Mark Pfost, (608) 565-4418, mark_pfost@fws.gov



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