White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Designers of Disturbance

by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR -- January, 2008

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "Designer of Disturbance" Jesse Rogers, inspects a tree to determine its value for wildlife. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "Designer of Disturbance" Jesse Rogers, inspects a tree to determine its value for wildlife. Credit: Matt Conner, USFWS

Last week I decided to try and slip into the woods after work with the hopes of sneaking into my tree-stand during the last hour of daylight. I knew that it would be risky as I was entering the woods during the peak time for deer movement, but I was confident I could be stealthy enough to make it to my stand without being detected. After parking my truck by the fallen tree that I used as my reference point, I picked up my bow and gently pushed my truck door shut as I felt it lock in place. I started walking with small strides and huge expectations as I eased my way through the woods.

I walked as quietly as possible avoiding sticks on the forest floor and ducking underneath briars and limbs as I closed the distance between me and my tree-stand. I lifted my leg over a log and placed the ball of my foot on the opposite side to feel for forest debris as I was startled by a piercing snort wheeze of a deer. I looked up just in time to see the tail of deer wave back and forth as it ran through the woods disturbed by my presence.

I was still balancing myself on one foot as I straddled the fallen log and I decided to lower myself down and have a seat as my evening hunt seemed foiled. Once the deer ran off and finished sounding her distress call, I sat still and realized how incredibly silent the woods had become. I decided to spend the last hour or so sitting on this log waiting for the forest to come alive again. After about 15 minutes, the birds began to sing, frogs started calling, and squirrels returned to their spastic daily rituals. Sitting motionless on the forest floor, I imagined that someone was slowly turning up an imaginary volume control on the forest, and the longer I sat undetected, the louder it became. I imagined that as I had walked through the woods, I had produced a wake of disturbance that resulted in a thunder of silence and as the proverbial waves resided, the forest activity resumed.

Even though the woods had come alive again, the impacts of my disturbance were still in effect. I saw signs of life around me as I sat quietly now, but little did I realize that I had flushed a small covey of birds that were now a couple hundred yards away feeding in an area that they may have never gone if I had not walked in the woods. Deer that I had spooked had fled from my presence and swam a slough and were now bed on a small island. And, the acorn that I never realized I stepped on was now an inch deep in the soil and will soon begin to germinate with the upcoming spring. My wake of disturbance produced a profound impact on the natural world just by my presence.

I sat looking around the forest and wondered how wildlife view disturbance in the forest. Looking at fallen trees and wildlife openings that had been created years ago by tree harvesting, I thought of how disturbance is always present in a forest and most wildlife depends on this occurring to promote change and a healthy ecosystem. In fact, I was hunting this spot today because I knew that a recent disturbance had drawn wildlife to this area with heavy vegetation, shrubs, vines, grasses, and forbs that provide both food and cover.

A tree that falls in the woods opens the canopy of the forest and within months the forest floor erupts in new vegetation benefiting various types of wildlife. A tree may fall as a result of old age, insect infestation, windstorm or other natural cause. A new opening produces an explosion of growth in a hundred foot circle, but when you take a continuous bottomland hardwood forest that is comprised of White River NWR and Cache River NWR you see that a few random openings may not be enough to support the level of wildlife that these refuges are responsible for producing. I began to think of our long range forest management programs and how our foresters are planning to use disturbance to create wildlife habitat.

I began to think of a new name better describing our foresters and chuckled when I came up with the title “Designers of Disturbance.” White River NWR and Cache River NWR work together to manage both Refuges as one large forest. The optimal forest management is creating multiple openings in the forest canopy allowing light to penetrate for re-growth while leaving less competition for remaining larger trees resulting in increased production of acorns, pecans, walnuts, persimmons, and other hard and soft mass foods for a variety of wildlife. The management also requires leaving trees that are dead and decaying as a food source for insects, woodpeckers, and bears. With this thought I looked around the forest floor and noticed many fallen logs that had been torn apart with pieces of rotting wood strewn around the forest. I decided to set down my bow and open my camera case with the hopes that a black bear may be in the area feeding on a last minute snack before settling down for the winter.

I went on to imagine our “Designers of Disturbance” as gardeners using tree harvesting, thinning, and tree selection as their version of a tiller, rake, and hoe in growing long term habitat. As the effects of forest management are immediate, over time this “wake of disturbance” is reduced as the vegetation grows taller and young trees grow larger and cut off the light they used to grow to the forest floor below. Every stage of this succession benefits a different species of wildlife. Just as the deer and turkey use the new growth for food and cover, the song birds utilize the later developing mid-canopy for nesting. To optimize the most benefit for the most types of wildlife, forest management is conducted so that the forest has many different stages of growth at the same time. If the entire forest was the exact same age, only a select number of species would benefit at a particular time. And just as we pull weeds and till up the earth to plant a garden, the end bounty will be well worth the initial disturbance.

I started to imagine our foresters dressed up like the characters in the “American Gothic” with pitch fork in hand and piece of grass held between their teeth while they posed for that classic portrait we have all seen when suddenly I was jerked from my day dream by a glimpse of movement. I instinctively sat up and reached for my bow as I watched a deer walk about 60 yards in front of me. This deer was completely unaware of the disturbance I had caused earlier and as I watched it feed on acorns in a clearing produced by one of our “Designers of Disturbance” just a few years ago.

The sun began to set and the deer fed off in the opposite direction as I sat still and enjoyed the moment. I thought how nice and peaceful this experience was and thought it ironic that this encounter was all based on initial disturbance. Had I not disturbed the deer when I entered the woods I never would have sat on that particular log, and had this section of forest never been disturbed, this deer might be feeding in another location and I would not have had this opportunity to appreciate the significance of disturbance.

Last updated: September 10, 2008