Habitat for wildlife, income

Ninety-five percent of Mississippi land is privately owned, and those landowners hold the key to the future of the state’s wildlife, says Joe Koloski, National Wild Turkey Federation/Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks cooperative biologist.

“It’s important to have landowners be interested in and participate in wildlife management, tree farming, and conservation programs to insure the sustainability of these valued resources for future generations,” he said at a NWTF landowner workshop at Circle M Plantation, Paulette, Miss.

Circle M, a long-time cotton plantation with a history tracing to the 1800s and now a privately-owned tree farm and hunting/fishing operation, has an ongoing program of habitat management.

“NWTF is dedicated to conservation and enhancement of wild turkey populations and the preservation of hunting traditions that have been cherished in this country for generations,” Koloski says. “Farmers and other private landowners are very important in wildlife management and conservation programs.

“Through workshops such as these we get landowners to come and see good examples of land stewardship practices — see things they may be able to do on their own property to foster wildlife and habitat.

Bobby Watkins, Starkville, Miss., who for many years was heavily involved in development of products for forestry and wildlife habitat for American Cyanamid and BASF and is now a resources management consultant for Circle M and other area clients, says careful planning and management of farmland, tree farms, and lakes/ponds can insure that suitable habitat is available for wildlife to thrive — in the process providing opportunities for additional income from the land.

“Mississippi State University studies show that use of prescribed burning and herbicides such as Arsenal to control sweetgums, privet, and other undesirable vegetation can return 29 percent more timber dollars. That’s a very worthwhile return, not to mention the potential for additional money from hunting on the land. When you leave pines untreated, you’re leaving a big pile of money on the table.”

Another MSU study, Watkins says, showed that game birds increase significantly in burned/treated areas compared to untreated, and that non-game species such as songbirds also increase significantly.

“Instead of letting pines become clogged with undesirable species that aren’t attractive to wildlife, you could have 50 to 60 native species growing in burned/treated areas, providing excellent nutrition and wildlife-carrying capacity. For deer, for example, there is a threefold improvement in carrying capacity where this kind of management program is used. A good management program focuses on killing the bad stuff and getting back the good stuff.

“By using a program of prescribed burning and herbicides you’re assisting nature in creating desirable habitat.”

Disking under trees also helps to stir the soil and encourage germination of dormant seeds of forbs and other desirable native species, Watkins says.

“Bush-Hogging is one of the worst things you can do. Most landowners do it because it makes things look good, but it eliminates cover that turkeys need, and can be a waste of time and money. Good equipment, herbicides, and techniques are available to manage land appropriately, and landowners need to learn about them and use them.

“When thinning pines, take out cull trees and leave the money trees to grow bigger. If you thin pines and get only $200 per acre when you could’ve gotten $350 with proper management, you’ve left money on the table. Thinning also opens the canopy to get more sunlight to the ground and encourage growth of desirable species.”

Wildlife food plots should be productive and suited to the needs of the wildlife populations, and require careful management, Watkins says. Non-native plants need to be eliminated to get good plants and native grasses back.

“In the 35 to 40 years I’ve worked with private landowners, the two most mismanaged assets are forests and lakes/ponds,” he says.

Kudzu, the highly invasive vine that has spread over much of the South, now infests over 500,000 acres of open fields and timberlands in Mississippi, says George Byrd, outreach forester for the Mississippi Forestry Commission’s Grenada regional office.

“Kudzu destroys the productivity of the land, on which you still have to pay taxes,” he says. “There is a three-year program for controlling the vine, but it’s extremely important that once you start it, you stick with it — you can’t just do it one year and stop.”

A good lake, properly managed, can produce thousands of pounds of fish per year and provide additional income to the landowner through fee fishing, says Jason Olive, District 1 fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

“But you need to be sure and take enough fish out to avoid overcrowding. The biggest problems with most ponds/lakes is that they just don’t get fished enough to allow fish to grow properly.”

The lack of big bass in a lake, for example, is usually not due to overfishing, he says. “Just the opposite, it’s likely because enough fish are not being removed. In nine of 10 ponds/lakes, the biggest problem is overcrowding.”

While Olive is a proponent of the catch-and-release practice observed by many anglers, he says it can often create problems, particularly in small lakes, by not having an adequate forage for fish to grow. When fish aren’t taken out — they’re just released after being caught — it results in “too many mouths to feed and a lot of small bass.”

Also, he says, fish that are caught several times and released are often less willing to bite, which lessens the chances of an angler getting a good catch.

“Harvest of bass will control just about everything that happens to the fish population,” Olive says. “If you can’t adequately monitor what’s being taken out of your lake/pond, you might have a rule to keep everything under 15 inches and throw back anything over that.

“Liming, fertilizing, and supplemental feeding all are important, but if the lake or pond isn’t fished adequately you’re still going to have a problem with overcrowding. In an unfertilized pond, you need to take out 20 pounds per acre, in a fertilized pond, 25 to 40 pounds per acre. That’s a lot of fish.

“If you aren’t able to keep it adequately fished, think about inviting high school youngsters to come and fish; they’ll be helping you, and in the process you’ll help foster a new generation of fishermen.

“It takes time for a lake/pond to respond to harvesting and management. In a well-balanced pond, under ideal circumstances, a bass should grow 1 pound per year, so stick with your harvesting program and you’ll see results over time.”

When starting a lake/pond from scratch, Olive says, “build and stock it properly and you can avoid a lot of problems down the road.”

Ideally, he says, ponds should have no shallow water less than 3 feet and a maximum depth of 8 feet to 10 feet. “When stocking a new pond, we suggest a 10-to-1 bream/bass ratio.”

Dave Godwin, turkey program coordinator, Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries at Mississippi State University, says the state’s abundance of lakes and rivers is increasingly attracting the American bald eagle.

“We once saw them only in areas around the Mississippi River and the big reservoirs, but now we’re more and more seeing them nesting in areas with small to medium-size bodies of water that offer adequate fishing potential for them.” (In the last couple of years, eagles have been nesting and hatching around 54-acre Lake Carol on the Circle M property.)

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