Price County, Northcentral Wisconsin

Young Forests Take "Initiative"

(The following is by Todd and Veronica Berg, from Minocqua, Wisconsin. The Bergs belong to the Ruffed Grouse Society; the article below is adapted from the fall 2015 Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society magazine and is used by permission.)

Valentine’s Day in 2008 was a watershed moment. My wife Veronica, a muse and intrepid bird hunting companion, and I pulled the trigger and purchased a parcel of land plumb in the middle of northern Wisconsin grouse country. Our modest goals at the time included some bird hunting with our flat-coated retriever and some opportunities to harvest a deer or two along the way. Little did we know what the land, and some great people with their own vision and initiative, ultimately had in store for us.

Todd Berg photo

Veronica Berg, right, visits with RGS equipment operator Mike Riggle./T. Berg

The purchase of the land subsequently led to the purchase of another adjoining parcel a few years later. Before we knew it, we were into full-fledged habitat management. Working through a managed forest law plan with our county forester opened our eyes to several possibilities for additional habitat improvements that would benefit many species of wildlife. Today, we continue to work on an assortment of those improvements.

During the summer of 2014, we received a letter from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). An informative cover letter on official stationary with signatures and state logos detailed a new and exciting program.

Following the passage of the much-delayed 2013 Farm Bill and with the help of the DNR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and a consortium of states and conservation organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Young Forest Project (YFP) had been started.

Aspen close up

Aspen will come in densely, offering excellent young forest habitat for a range of wildlife.

The YFP is an effort to improve habitat conditions for the American woodcock, golden-winged warbler, and numerous other species of birds and mammals like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. One goal of the YFP is to create young forest tracts within large stands of unproductive tag alder and middle-aged aspen stands. Cutting, tree shearing, and shrub-mulching to create forest openings and encourage young growth and regeneration were the order of the day. Doing so would encourage woodcock propagation and warbler production and help all sorts of other species currently unable to use tracts of middle-aged woodland where the cover was thinner and food was less abundant.

After a few calls to the Wisconsin DNR biologists, NRCS representative, and our county forester, we felt the program had great merit and that portions of our property were well suited for young forest habitat work. We signed an application, hosted a site survey, and met with NRCS representatives like Bob Plawski in Medford, Wisconsin, and Jeremy Holtz, the regional biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander. Impressed with the dedication, passion, and skills of these conservation professionals, we waited and hoped. Soon after, we received great news – our parcel had been accepted into the new program, and habitat work was going to happen! We were assigned a farm number and signed off on the documents that would provide us a contractual stipend to undertake the cutting. Let the work begin!

Flat-coated retriever

The Bergs are avid grouse hunters who own a flat-coated retriever./T. Berg

In mid-December 2014, we contacted yet another wonderful man associated with the Wisconsin Young Forest Project. Gary Zimmer is with the Ruffed Grouse Society and also a Wisconsin Natural Resources Board member. The NRCS had provided Gary’s contact information and, suspecting he was a kindred spirit, we called him first. Gary had a wealth of information, and through him we were introduced to a gentleman named Mike Riggle. Mike’s a semi-retired veterinarian with an easy smile, a big heart, a penchant for heavy equipment, and a love of the land. A bird hunter, self-made arborist, and conservation-minded guy who “just wanted to give something back,” Mike showed up before Christmas with a big Terex skid steer and a mulching attachment the size of a Zamboni. The machine is owned by RGS, and Mike provides his time, skill, and effort to do the actual work. Having walked the site previously with us, Mike went to work with the big mulching machine.

During two outings totaling about 12 hours, Mike created the beginning of a 5-acre young forest right before our eyes, with contoured edges along a river bank, big trees left for cover, irregular borders, and wide openings in the forest canopy overhead. We marveled at the immediate difference. An area that had been a tangled mess of older growth alder and spindly aspen was open to the general wildlife public! Light penetrated much of this area for the first time in over a decade. In fact, we witnessed signs of deer, grouse, rabbit, and fox tracks in the new cut within 48 hours of its completion, and even got to see a fisher along the edge of the river on one of the days we worked alongside Mike – a first glimpse for us in the wild!

We’re told by Gary Zimmer of RGS that the woodcock will use it right away this coming spring. We’ll hear them sounding their peent calls in the warm April nights, and we can’t wait to watch and listen. We've cut 5 acres so far and are hoping to add another 7 to 9 acres this winter, pending NRCS funding. We own 200 acres altogether, and it's possible that 30 that could be managed for young forest over the next three to five years.

Chestnut-sided warbler

Warblers and other songbirds will home in on the new habitat created on the Berg property./T. Berriman

The warblers, hares, foxes, fisher, grouse, deer, turkeys and others will benefit greatly. In three to four years, woodcock will nest and live in the regrowing young forest; this will help the local population and just maybe do a little bit toward reversing the species’ long-term population decline.

We encourage each and every Ruffed Grouse Society member and landowner to investigate the potential for your own involvement in this very fulfilling program. We heartily urge you to do so; you’ll be helping the birds and animals and we downright guarantee that you’ll feel better about yourself and your own sporting heritage. All of us should ask our conservation organizations to help swing the balance in our favor as sportsmen, hunters, and lovers of wild spaces. RGS has responded to our pleas. Will you answer the call?

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