Habitat Formed by Dead Trees

Nov 11, 2019

Earlier this summer, parts of the forested North were devastated by wind storms and tornadoes, and work to clean up the aftermath is ongoing.

In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist reminds us that while it is tragic to see trees broken and lying down, sometimes messed is best for wildlife species.

This past summer a strong windstorm blew through parts of the Northwoods, leaving a trail of broken off and uprooted trees in its wake. Residents and landowners found themselves stranded, without power, in some cases for several days. The National Guard was mobilized, as well as natural resource and forestry staff from multiple agencies, to carve roads open enough to get emergency services and restore power in these areas. There is no question, this a catastrophe that must be dealt with. The US Forest Service, for example, has been working nonstop on dealing with concerns not only on their own property but also on roads that people use to access their homes or recreational areas. Once that work is done, the long term management must be addressed – what do you do with all the blown down timber? How do you manage these areas moving forward?

Following the trail of manifest destiny, it goes against our human nature to let a downed tree lie. The thought often is that we wouldn’t want the downed trees lying there, and that they would go to waste if they were not made into fuel, paper, or other forest products. As a biologist, I can tell you that there are some negative impacts from a tornado or blowdown. Nests and dens are disturbed, animals are injured or killed, and movement and feeding patterns are disrupted. However, I would make the case that there can be benefits to a blowdown. Often in wildlife habitat management, we conduct activities that mimic natural processes, like using a coppice with reserves harvest or overstory removal, leaving standing dead trees or snags to mimic a fire or blowdown.

These trees are extremely valuable for wildlife. When standing, they provide food and shelter for all kinds of birds and animals, like woodpeckers, wood ducks, mergansers, owls, raccoons and squirrels. When fallen, they provide food and cover for a whole different suite of creatures including salamanders, rodents, snowshoe hares and black bears. Turkeys like to nest next to a downed tree, and grouse need hollow logs to claim their turf and advertise for mates. Basically, an individual tree can do more for wildlife when dead or downed than it probably can standing healthy.

When trees hit the ground, they add a special kind of structure that cannot be artificially reproduced. I once had a grouse hunter from out of state tell me that our forest floors (in this case on the state forest) were nice and clean, a lot easier to walk through than those in his home state. This is not necessarily a compliment for a wildlife biologist. Why, ruffed grouse themselves need hollow logs for their springtime drumming, so much so that it can be a determining factor for male grouse looking for territory to claim! Messed is best when it comes to wildlife habitat, and the ugliest trees are the most beautiful to the creatures that use them. as a habitat manager and a property manager, it is important to responsibly manage forests sustainably and responsibly, which includes leaving dead and live trees standing with the expectation that some will tip over on purpose. This will ensure that a wide variety of wildlife species will continue to benefit from having trees of all ages and in all conditions, from seedling to decaying log, scattered across the landscape.