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  4. 2003
  5. June

Native Plant Communities are Very Important for Wildlife

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The most important concept to understand for successful wildlife management is the importance of native plant communities. Conservation and management of native plant communities should be the emphasis of wildlife management efforts. Without appropriate native plant communities present, most wildlife species cannot exist.

One of the most common questions our wildlife specialists receive is "What should I plant for wildlife?" Usually, the answer is "You do not 'need' to plant anything." Sometimes there is a justification for planting some aspect of wildlife habitat, but usually wildlife does not "need" plantings. What they need are appropriate native plant communities because most native wildlife species depend upon natural plant communities for their habitat. Generally, some aspect or combination of native prairies, woodlands, shrublands, savannas, wetlands or streams provides these habitats. When managing wildlife habitat, it is almost always more successful and efficient to work with the existing native plant communities rather than try to plant something to replace them.

The most common reason for wildlife to be scarce on a property is the lack of appropriate native plant communities. The abundance of wildlife species, such as white-tailed deer or bobwhite, living on a property is a function of the amount and interspersion of appropriate native plant communities. For example, the primary cause of the bobwhite decline in most of the United States is probably the decrease of brushy prairie and open grassy woodlands. Both are relatively scarce in the eastern United States and so are the quail that depend on them.

A property's capacity to support most wildlife species is usually reduced when native plant communities are replaced with something else such as buildings, roads, lawns, lakes, introduced pastures or crops. Many of these changes are necessary and inevitable for us to share this planet and earn a living, but sometimes such changes occur simply because the implementer does not know any better.

Conservation versus preservation of native plant communities is also an important concept. Conservation implies wise use and management whereas preservation implies no use and no disturbance. Native plant communities are dynamic they constantly change. The process of plant community change is called succession. Successional changes are predictable according to region, climate, soil and disturbances. It is difficult, if not impossible, to "preserve" a specific native plant community because lack of disturbance likely will cause it to change into something different. When managing for specific wildlife species, we should manage succession to maintain the optimum native plant communities for our goals. We manage succession primarily with tools such as prescribed burning, grazing and rest. Sometimes we use tools such as tillage, herbicides, fertilization, planting or water to manage succession, but we tend to use these less because they are more expensive or tend to cause drastic changes in plant communities. Each tool can effect both desirable and undesirable changes depending upon how it is used. For example, preservation emphasizes the tool of rest (no use and no disturbance), which generally causes desirable changes initially, but plant communities usually continue to change beyond optimum successional stages without implementation of other tools.

In summary, if you are interested in wildlife on your property, native plant communities should be the focus of your management and the first thing you scrutinize.