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Evaluating winter habitat

DNR Wildlife Initiative seeks input from conservation groups

April 3, 2009
By Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - Last Friday night, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Upper Peninsula Wildlife Habitat Work Group (UP/WHWG) re-convened in Iron Mountain to cover several emerging issues. The group has been in place since 2002 and saw the appointment of biologist Bill Scullon into the position of Deer Range Improvement Program coordinator. His primary focus: to provide and set aside areas of wilderness that are best suited both now and into the future as winter wildlife habitat.

To date he's done an outstanding job with public property, but that's only half the issue.

With nearly 45 percent of the forestland in the U.P. being held in private (non-timber producer) ownership, it has become quite evident that there's a whole lot of trees that need attention.

Don't ask me why or how, but knowing what to do with private forests in order to naturally sustain wildlife through a tough winter seems to have fallen away from the minds of the landowners. There is more research and investment into supplemental feeding of wildlife than there has been to have the necessary winter habitat available naturally.

A number of conservation organizations, including agriculture, came together several times in the mid 1990s. It was during the peak of the bovine tuberculosis issue that centered around Deer Management Unit 452 in the northern Lower Peninsula.

The increased prevalence of the disease in free-ranging deer (and other wildlife) was believed to come from massive winter feeding programs in the area that saw deer congregate in great numbers at feeding stations. The tuberculin bacteria was easily suspended in colder temperatures and being a mostly airborne pathogen, wildlife managers deduced it to be the main cause of the spread by nose to nose contact as deer ate. That position often started debates that continue to rage today and have merged into the consideration of other disease prevention measures in the state, including Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Dr. R. Ben Peyton, then from Michigan State University and since retired, facilitated the round table style meetings over the summer of 1996. Throughout the process, he helped hunters understand the losses beef and dairy farmers were dealing with since Michigan was no longer rated as being tuberculosis free.

Dr. Peyton and representatives of agriculture appreciated how the conservation clubs had agreed with the DNR to increase antlerless hunting permits and reduce the deer herd in areas of over-population. They also listened and learned that in some areas, if not for supplemental feeding, deer herds would not carry through the winter as they should due to timber harvest conditions that left them stranded without enough food to get through spring break-up.

At one point, Dr. Peyton suggested we had to decide if we were going to keep deer in balance with nature or farm them like common livestock. The comment extended the discussion and debate even longer.

A private land stewardship program had been enrolled in the U.P. a few years prior to the DMU452 disease issue. The purpose was to provide cost-share assistance to private forestland owners in creating and implementing a management plan. It was to have aided in broadening natural sustainability of deer including dispersal, while sparing some areas from over population and over browse during the winter yarding months.

The program vanished not too long after getting established. Since then, deer enthusiasts have fallen back on the use of supplemental feeding to augment the winter diet of deer.

Now, 13 years later, the pendulum of focus seems to have swung back in the other direction as Scullon and other representatives of the NDR announced the roll out of a new Wildlife Division Initiative and how conservation organizations can once again partner with the DNR to enhance habitat on private and public ownerships across the U.P.

The initial annual appropriation for the U.P. is $50,000 with first applications due by May 15. That won't be hard to meet as a number of requests for habitat projects are already in waiting in some of the conservation clubs. There will be an extended reopening of the application period when the DNR fiscal year begins October.

Each project submitted for consideration will be scored on specific merit points and will be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary selection committee made up of representative from the UP/WHWG. Like the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, this group will convene annually at the end of the application period to review and evaluate project proposals.

It is like another sign of spring. Just as other positive things are popping up like new flora, the ongoing predator/prey/habitat study and now the Deer Habitat Improvement Partnership Initiative (DHIPI) are both cause to believe better times for the natural sustainability of wildlife are coming.



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