Farmington River Wildlife Management Area, Berkshires, Massachusetts

Building Habitat Around a Healthy Core

Farmington River Wildlife Management Area straddles the border between the southwestern Massachusetts towns of Otis and Becket. It’s the largest landholding owned and managed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) in the Southern Berkshire Focus Area for New England cottontail restoration.

Farmington River Wildlife Management Area

Recent even-aged timber harvest will spur the growth of new young forest, providing habitat for wildlife ranging from New England cottontails to deer to ruffed grouse. Grouse will use "drumming logs" (foreground) during their spring breeding season./C. Fergus

The WMA’s 1,200 acres include wetlands, an old farmstead, and a great sweep of second- and third-growth forest – trees that today are mainly middle-aged. Woodland in that growth stage provides habitat for some kinds of wildlife, but not for those animals, such as the New England cottontail, that need denser vegetation than what grows on the relatively open forest floor beneath the medium-sized beeches, birches, maples, and black cherries cloaking the hills at Farmington River WMA.

“For this project, we started off with a core patch of relatively young forest that had grown back following a recent shelterwood timber harvest,” says David Scarpitti, a biologist with MassWildlife and Massachusetts’s representative on the New England Cottontail Technical Committee. The core of the new habitat centers on a stand of young, regrowing hardwoods and conifers near the old farmstead with its cellar hole, stone walls, and remnant apple trees. “Our plan was to expand on what we already had in place,” Scarpitti says.

Altogether, the project will create 55 acres of new, thick, food-rich habitat for New England cottontail, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and black bear. Songbirds will use the young forest for nesting and for feeding on insects and wild fruits that will grow in abundantly in the newly opened area.

Using State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funds, a detailed Forest Management Plan was prepared, and the felling and the marketing of timber products – sugar maple saw logs, firewood, and pulp – was contracted. About half of the timber on the 55 acres was harvested during winter 2014-15, and the other half will be cut during winter 2015-16.

Cottontails in the Neighborhood

Previous rangewide surveys documented New England cottontails in the vicinity of Farmington River WMA in 2003. Biologists also found evidence of the species’ presence in several other locations in southern Berkshire County, leading conservationists to designate the region as a Focus Area for cottontail restoration.

Legacy trees at Farmington River Wildlife Management Area

Conservationists left "legacy trees," large old sugar maples on the site of the old farmstead./C. Fergus

Following the “build it and they will come” philosophy, MassWildlife hopes that New England cottontails will find and populate the new habitat soon. The WMA includes a forested wetland, a type of habitat that “often offers good potential habitat for cottontails in southern Berkshire County,” Scarpitti says. “Because this area was once farmed, there are stone walls snaking through the woods in many places. Crevices and cracks in those stone walls offer potential burrows into which cottontails can duck into to escape predators.”

In carrying out the timber cut, the logging operator harvested the mature trees in the core area that remained following the earlier shelterwood cut. (A shelterwood harvest typically has two stages. A number of “seed trees” are left uncut during the first entry; they provide nuts and seeds to jump-start a new forest stand. Later, those seed trees are cut to complete the harvest.) The logger also left “legacy trees” – big, old sugar maples bordering a lane near the site of the original farmstead. To keep from digging ruts in wet areas, the operator laid down “wetland timber mats” made of 10-inch by 10-inch rough-cut timbers. The mats provided a weight-dispersing track for heavy equipment to follow when harvesting and hauling logs.

On the fringes of the core of young forest produced by the earlier shelterwood cut, and in the newly harvested areas, raspberry and blackberry shrubs are already growing. Huckleberry should thrive in areas of dry, acidic soil. Other native shrubs and trees will seed in and establish themselves. And the trees that were harvested will send up shoots from their stumps.

Canada warblers, wood and hermit thrushes, veeries, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks are a few of the many kinds of birds that should home in on the new young forest. “We’ve heard lots of American woodcock singing here in the springtime,” Scarpitti reports. Young, regrowing woods offers ideal habitat for woodcock. Damp-soil zones on Farmington River WMA will provide good feeding areas for this upland game bird, which likes to probe with its bill into soft ground to find worms, its main food.

Canada warbler

Canada warblers respond well to clearcuts where a few trees have been left standing./T. Berriman

“Higher intensity timber harvests, such as clearcuts and seed tree or shelterwood harvests, create a unique situation that promotes optimal regeneration of pioneering hardwood species such as black cherry, birch, and poplar,” says Scarpitti. “These young trees offer a productive mix of dense cover and valuable food sources for wildlife.”

Maples, birches, and ashes will stump-sprout from the harvested trees, giving rise to a new forest. Says Scarpitti, “We left lots of coarse woody debris on the ground.” This “slash” – the branches and twigs from the tops of the harvested trees – will provide excellent habitat for insects, reptiles, and small mammals as it slowly decomposes. The slash also makes it harder for deer to browse back the young regrowing trees, which will give the regrowing forest a good start. Scattered logs left on the ground in strategic spots will become drumming logs for grouse: During the spring breeding season, male grouse perch on the logs and drum their wings loudly to attract females.

“The genesis of this project is rabbits,” says Scarpitti, “but what we’re doing on Farmington River WMA is also good for other wildlife. And the folks who use the WMA for recreation will have much better opportunities for hunting, and for viewing more – and more diverse – wildlife over the next 15 to 20 years in the young forest that springs up here.”

Funding and Partners

MassWildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Management Institute.

How to Visit

The young forest habitat project lies just west of the intersection of Becket and Lee-Westfield Roads. Parking is available on a log landing on the west side of Becket Road.