Why Windstorms Can Be Good For Wildlife Habitat

Nov 20, 2014

Many people gather firewood from fallen or dead trees on their own lands or from national forest or state-owned property.  In today’s Wildlife Matters, DNR Wildlife Biologist Jeremy Holtz says in some cases, managers may choose to leave those trees alone for the benefit of wildlife.  

Fallen trees are a good choice for firewood, but also helpful for animals.
Credit Rob Burke

This past summer a strong windstorm blew through parts of the Northwoods, leaving a trail of broken off and uprooted trees in its wake. One of the areas that was hit by this windstorm was the Woodboro Lakes State Wildlife Area, located about fifteen miles west of Rhinelander on Oneida County Highway K. This 3,000 acre property was purchased in 1999 as part of the Great Addition.  Since that time, managers have developed vehicle access roads, parking areas, seasonal campsites, and hunter walking trails using the property’s extensive logging road network. Ruffed Grouse Society Drummer Grant dollars have funded the development of an extensive hunter walking trail network through the property’s forests, which are mostly aspen and white birch with areas of red oak, red maple and white pine. The property is heavily used by hunters; other common uses include trapping, birdwatching, hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, berry picking, and other outdoor recreation activities. It is managed for wildlife using active timber management as the primary tool for habitat development.

As soon as the windstorm blew through, I had to drive to the property and evaluate the damage. There were trees across some of the roads and trails, and it was easy to see that some trees had blown down on the edges of openings, swamps, lakes, and even within some timber stands. The trees that blocked vehicle access were cut up first and walking trails were chopped open soon afterwards. Almost immediately after the storm, I also started hearing from people who wanted to cut firewood on the property, especially the oaks that blew down. Every year I get requests from people who want to cut firewood on the property, but this event increased the number of people interested. The thought was that we wouldn’t want the downed trees lying there, and that they would go to waste if they were not made into fuel.

Currently, we are following the same policies of Oneida County Forest and the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest; we will issue firewood cutting permits on a limited term basis and only on certain timber sale areas that have already been cut by the purchasers of those sales. Before we will issue a firewood cutting permit, the timber sale has been closed out and finalized.  Due to the nature of our timber sales on the property, there is rarely anything left to collect for firewood. People typically want dead standing or recently fallen hardwood species for firewood. 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 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. Messed is best when it comes to wildlife habitat, and the ugliest trees are the most beautiful to the creatures that use them. We will continue to responsibly manage the forests at Woodboro Lakes, 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.