The USFWS’ Organ explained the low level of active management being conducted on our WMAs by pointing out that the Pittman-Robertson Act allows not only for the purchase and development of those lands but also for “other uses” such as research projects directed at finding solutions for the problems affecting wildlife restoration. Despite this, a common refrain among state land managers (those who are charged with the planning and implementation of work under Pittman-Robertson Act guidelines) is that there is not enough manpower or money to accomplish their goals.
Even in Pennsylvania, which has one of the best land-management divisions in the United States, actual habitat manipulation comes to 15,000 acres per year. That sounds like a lot except that the Keystone State has more than 1.5 million acres in state game land holdings, which means that 99 percent of those public hunting lands stand idle each year. In addition, Lisa Williams, a Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist, said the state has lost some 1.7 million acres of early-successional habitat in the last 30 years.
“Long-term declines in grouse and woodcock [numbers] are linked to declining areas of early-successional forest,” Williams asserted.
The situation is the same in New York, Georgia, Connecticut and even Ohio, where Jennifer Windus, a 28-year land management biologist there, admitted that she shares hunters’ frustration with the lack of habitat programs on state WMAs.
“We continue to buy land but we are not willing to allocate the necessary funding to manage the land,” she said, noting that her department “no longer even tries” to manage its WMAs for maximum habitat diversity, primarily due to complicated funding and manpower issues.
“All land managers are now forced to prioritize and do less as we just do not have the resources anymore,” Windus added.
Contributing to the habitat deficit is that most years more land is added to the WMA system than is enhanced or improved for early-successional habitat: the saplings, brush, grass and succulents that constitute prime habitat for the greatest diversity of wildlife.
Most Eastern WMAs presently consist of about 80 percent mature forest with 20 percent or less in mowed areas, clear-cuts and sapling growth. When the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed in 1937, the top biologists of the era (including Aldo Leopold, the “grandfather” of modern conservation) said that for maximum diversity of habitat and wildlife species there should be a mix of 30 percent mixed saplings, 10 percent slash, 20 percent brushy saplings, 10 percent open meadows and 30 percent mature forest. I don’t know of any state in the East (including Maine) with even one WMA that is at or near this Holy Grail of management goals after 75 years of Pittman-Robertson Act funding.
There are many reasons why our hunter-funded WMAs look like mini state forests. In nearly every state that uses P-R funding, most of the land-management resources have been focused on those “other uses” ranging from maintaining miles of boundary lines, roads, trails and bridges, plus developing plans, consulting, site evaluations and other administrative duties.
For example, John Pratte, Maine’s Wildlife Management Section supervisor, reported that a total of 1,777 acres of habitat management was conducted in 2010, including managing timber on 1,050 acres, herbaceous seeding on 14 acres, clearing of 27 acres for early-successional habitat, “vegetation control” (i.e., mowing) on 669 acres, planting on 6 acres, apple tree releases on 5 acres and managing for wild turkeys on 6 acres. Aside from annual mowing, which some biologists now believe is actually detrimental to wildlife populations, the total acreage “managed” that year was less than 1 percent of the state’s WMA holdings, at a cost of more than $5 million.
Our WMAs were originally established to provide for continued public use including hunting, fishing and trapping but now include hiking and walking, biking, cross-country skiing, berry picking, leaf peeping, horseback riding, snowmobiling and ATV riding, boating and canoeing, cemetery visiting, training hunting dogs and wildlife watching. However, of all these users, only hunters are paying the freight.
Meanwhile, as our WMAs have grown to mature forest hunters complain that deer and other game species are more abundant on bordering private properties that in many cases have more habitat diversity than the neighboring WMA. Because of this, there has been a shift in hunter interest from state-owned WMAs to private lands, leases, clubs and pay-to-hunt operations because the habitat on those areas is often better managed for game.
One common concern among state wildlife biologists is that there are more administrative requirements today than ever before.
“There is a larger issue that gets at the heart of the problem,” the USFWS’ Organ said. “State fish and wildlife agency personnel at all levels are frustrated because of the demands placed on them and the insufficient resources they have to address them. What is needed are systemic changes—changes in governance, cultures, etc.—that can lead to broader funding and maybe allowing P-R to be more focused.”
The “culture” issue noted by Organ refers to non-paying users ignorantly interfering with sound habitat-management principles and practices, yet their demands often are considered by state land-management administrators.
“I conducted an 80-acre selective cut (as recommended by a state forester) and the ‘greenies’ came out of the woodwork,” said Wayne Lehman, a career wildlife biologist in Delaware. “They were writing letters to the editor and calling the governor’s office. You would have thought I’d committed [a crime]!”
Catering to “the public” and allowing “other” (non-paying) users to dictate how our WMAs are managed is a large part of the problem. Wildlife management areas are not meant to be scenic picnic areas, open parks or giant tree museums. A properly managed WMA may look terrible to non-hunters with its brushy cover, saplings, clear-cuts and briars, but that is precisely the type of habitat where big and small game species (deer, pheasants, quail, rabbits, woodcock and grouse) plus a multitude of songbirds and other non-game birds and animals thrive. This is what hunters pay for and want to see on their WMAs, not endless miles of mature, same-age forest filled with roads and trails where little wildlife of any kind may be found.
What can be done? Ryan Robicheau, Maine’s Region B Land Management biologist, said sportsmen can help save some money and turn around the long-standing WMA habitat deficit by working with regional biologists to mow existing meadows (which some individuals and groups already do); plant beneficial herbaceous bushes and trees; create small openings in timber stands; bush-hog overgrown sapling stands; prune, release and fertilize existing apple trees; and install and maintain duck nesting structures.
There is also a need for “custodial” workers who can participate in routine trash pick-up, culvert clearing, boundary maintenance and similar projects to free biologists to pursue more meaningful habitat work.
In some states, organized groups including correctional facility inmates could be utilized for long-term projects up to and including clear-cutting, bush-hogging and other large-scale habitat improvement activities under the guidance of a state biologist or forester.
Other frustrated land managers suggested that instead of hiring full-time biologists (with benefits) to manage our WMAs, it would be possible to hire part-time biologists and foresters to conduct the required planning and follow-up inspections while hiring local loggers to do the necessary cutting, effectively reducing the time and money now required to do the work, thus giving hunters more bang for their P-R buck.
Our WMAs are essentially dormant now and have been for decades, but they can be returned to a high level of habitat and species diversity. As the USFWS’ John Organ noted, getting there will require some important changes in how our P-R money is spent and how the habitat work is conducted.
Many state WMAs have had no habitat work performed in 70 years, the excuse being a lack of manpower and funds, but according to biologist Lehman, a basic habitat assessment can be completed “in about eight weeks,” and the recommended habitat work can be implemented within 12 months. It should not take 50, 60 or 75 years to begin, let alone complete, a WMA habitat project.