Restoration and management of forested wetlands: Application of Strategic Habitat Conservation framework
The forested wetlands of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley are a national treasure, home to nationally significant waterfowl and songbird populations, rare species such as the Louisiana black bear, and ivory-billed woodpecker, and diverse and unique habitats, people, and cultures. Over the last two decades, partners within the Valley have been working to develop and implement conservation actions to better restore and manage forested wetlands.
The objective is to restore and maintain wetland functions and to conserve sustainable populations of wildlife species dependent upon these forested wetlands. In pursuit of this goal, partners have embraced the Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) business model of interdependent collaboration with myriad government agencies, non-profit organizations, and private individual partners. These entities are developing and implementing conservation actions framed by SHC’s functional elements of biological planning, conservation design, conservation delivery and actions, outcome-based monitoring, and assumption-driven research.
So why is the Mississippi Alluvial Valley so important? It was once a vast, functioning 24-million-acre bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem. Due to large-scale deforestation as a result of increased agricultural production and hydrologic alterations in the name of flood control, only about four million acres of bottomland hardwood forest exist today. As a result, species dependent upon large areas of bottomland forest at a landscape scale, and complex forest structure within forest stands, have declined. Using this as a backdrop, Partners in Flight developed a conservation plan for forest interior songbirds based on a forest patch size model. Results from this modeling effort suggested that patches of 10,000 acres, 20,000 acres, and 100,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest are required to support sustainable populations of priority forest interior bird species such as Swainson’s warbler, cerulean warbler, and swallow-tailed kite, respectively.
With Partners in Flight planning efforts, staff from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Unit and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture Office developed a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based, decision support tool to select the best locations for building larger blocks of forest through the process of reforestation. Similarly, the Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Team, working through the Black Bear Conservation Committee, developed priority areas to facilitate restoration efforts. Both of these tools have been incorporated into the ranking process for U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill Programs (e.g., Wetland Reserve Program) to better focus restoration activities on privately-owned lands.
In 2007, the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture partnership released its compilation of forested wetland restoration and management recommendations entitled “Restoration, Management and Monitoring of Forest Resources in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley: Recommendations for Enhancing Wildlife Habitat” (often abbreviated as the “Desired Forest Conditions” document). In the short time since its release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), State Wildlife Agencies, and several non-governmental organizations (e.g., Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy) have been working together to implement these recommendations.
A decision support tool to prioritize reforestation efforts across the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. The colors represent the prioritization scheme. The warmer the color the higher the priority. Map created by staff within the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture Office.
For example, the Service’s Migratory Bird Program field office in Jackson, Mississippi, annually hosts a Birding Bootcamp to coordinate monitoring efforts and expose to: (1) bird identification; (2) bird-habitat relationships; and (3) restoration and management recommendations targeted at bird conservation. Due to the success of this year’s Birding Bootcamp with staff from Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), a follow-up forest management workshop was held at O’Keefe Wildlife Management Area. Forestry staff from White River National Wildlife Refuge and the Jackson Migratory Bird Program field office worked closely with staff from MDWFP to organize and coordinate the workshop.
At the workshop, MDWFP staff was briefed on the DFC recommendations, wildlife habitat objectives and the current line-of-thinking on marking timber targeted at enhancing wildlife habitat (i.e., wildlife-based forestry vs. production-based forestry) in a classroom setting. This was followed by a real-life timber marking activity in which MDWFP workshop attendees were separated into groups, and an FWS employee facilitated the timber marking process. In an effort to make sure the workshop was a fully educational hands-on learning experience, the following day the attendees performed the timber-marking. To continue the educational process, additional workshops are currently being planned to review past forest management activities and expose additional conservation partners (e.g., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to the concept of Desired Forest Conditions and wildlife-based forestry, as well as to facilitate inter- and intra-agency coordination and communication.
In the future, as land managers implement forest management strategies to achieve Desired Forest Conditions, it is very important that a coordinated monitoring program be designed and implemented such that forest management prescriptions can be evaluated and modified following the principles of adaptive management. To this extent, the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture partnership designed and implemented a large-scale, forest breeding bird monitoring program to assess avian response to forest management actions. An objective of this monitoring program is to answer questions such as, “when do wildlife populations increase or decrease following timber harvest?” Over the last four years, employees on National Wildlife Refuges and State Wildlife Management Areas have evaluated more 250 forest management treatments representing more than 1,500 individual point counts. All data is being stored and managed by USGS-Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD with analytical support provided by USGS-Patuxent Wildlife Research Station in Vicksburg, MS. Data obtained from this monitoring program will provide land managers information needed to adjust management prescriptions to better facilitate or enhance habitat needs of priority wildlife species.
Conservation partners in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley have utilized the functional elements of Strategic Habitat Conservation to guide and facilitate the development and implementation of: biological planning activities (development of population and habitat objectives); conservation design (spatially-explicit decision support tools); conservation actions and /delivery (clearly articulated desired forest conditions); and an outcome-based monitoring program (coordinated bird monitoring in relation to forest management) in pursuit of landscapes capable of sustaining populations of priority wildlife species. Additionally, conservation partners have embraced the conservation business model aspect of SHC to increase inter- and intra-agency coordination as well as inter-disciplinary training and communication (i.e., increased coordination among biologists and foresters). As a result of this increased communication, there now are biologists capable of marking timber for harvest and foresters capable of conducting point count-based bird surveys. Although partners have made great strides in advancing conservation of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, there are still myriad unanswered questions and uncertainties that need to be addressed through directed research such that underlying models, assumptions, and management strategies can be revised based on outputs of coordinated monitoring and research programs and adapted-based changing environmental and climatic conditions. Nevertheless, the SHC concept has provided an invaluable framework by which to organize the intellectual thoughts, resources, and collective capabilities of individual partners in pursuit of sustainable landscapes.
Submitted by Randy Wilson, Project Leader, Migratory Bird Program Field Office, Jackson, Mississippi