Rusk County, Northcentral Wisconsin

Openings and Alders for Wildlife

Mike Gardner owns a small farm in northern Wisconsin about 100 miles south of his home along Lake Superior. The 42-acre parcel is “small enough that I can manage it intensively,” Gardner says. In 2012, he got help from the Ruffed Grouse Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to improve the habitat on his land for woodcock and other young forest wildlife.

biologist and landowner

Ruffed Grouse Society biologist Gary Zimmer, left, shows landowner Mike Gardner alder shrubs that are too old and sparse to provide good habitat for woodcock and other wildlife.

The first step was to turn loose a skid steer, a tracked machine with a fast-revolving cutting head that mowed down shrubs – mainly alders – to restore a wildlife opening in a 13-acre old field. Next, the machine browsed back 7 acres of straggling, sparse, overmature alders, which has spurred the shrubs to grow back thickly from their root systems, yielding the dense cover that many wild animals need.

This is a smallish project in the grand scheme of things, but it’s exactly the kind that Jeremy Holtz, a Wisconsin DNR biologist based in Rhinelander, and his conservation colleagues want to promote through the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership. A key facet of the Partnership is helping private landowners manage their land to benefit woodcock, golden-winged warblers, ruffed grouse, and scores of other species. In 2012 Holtz organized a field day on an habitat demonstration area in the region, Ackley State Wildlife Area in Langlade County, where Wisconsinites like Gardner saw firsthand the results of habitat management techniques aimed at putting more young forest on the land.

Reclaiming an old field for wildlife

Skid steer machine removing older alders and trees to restore a clearing for wildlife.

Demo Areas Deliver the Message

The Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership promotes another site for education and outreach: the Lake Tomahawk Woodcock Habitat Demonstration Area along the Wisconsin River in Northern Highland-American Legion State forest. Both the Ackley and Lake Tomahawk sites include hundreds of acres where conservationists are using commercial logging as well as mowing and shearing to promote many different age classes of trees (particularly aspen) and to gradually break up large expanses of older, same-age shrubs (mainly alder), creating patches of young, regrowing vegetation.

Those two species, aspen and alder, are a primary focus for the Partnership's efforts. Says Holtz, “We’re looking for interested landowners in areas where the soils are suited for aspen and alder, and introducing them to Best Management Practices that will let them keep some of their land in young forest to help the dozens of wild species that need this short-lived habitat.”

Landowner workshop at Ackley demonstration area

Jeremy Holtz greets landowners at field day on Ackley demo area.

Holtz has contacted more than a thousand landowners in seven counties, mailing them materials explaining what young forest is and why wildlife need this habitat, and meeting with dozens of them on their properties. “Our goal is to help landowners develop habitat plans for their land and then follow through with those plans at a cost they can afford,” Holtz says.

Holtz works closely with the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to help projects become a reality. In the case of Mike Gardner’s 42-acre farmstead, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program cost-shared on expenses, the Ruffed Grouse Society contributed machine time for the habitat-browsing Bobcat, and Holtz provided technical advice. “It was a nice blend of support from those three groups,” Gardner reports. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.”

Research Helps Hone Habitat Work

Amber Roth is an assistant professor of forest wildlife management at the University of Maine and a contract habitat biologist with the Wildlife Management Institute. She’s working on a longterm research project studying how golden-winged warblers use the young forest habitat being made on the Lake Tomahawk demonstration area, and what the best techniques are for efficiently making that kind of cover. Golden-winged warblers are still fairly abundant in the area, though their numbers have fallen for several decades. One way to boost their population is to provide ample amounts of the young forest they need for nesting and rearing young, while keeping some taller trees around so that males can use them as singing perches during the breeding season.

Amber Roth holding woodcock

Amber Roth shows woodcock to delighted onlookers at Lake Tomahawk demo area.

During a recent spring, she says, "I took folks out to the demonstration area for a woodcock program. People were just amazed at how many male woodcock were calling from the ground and flying up into the sky at twilight, trying to attract mates.” Whip-poor-wills were also abundant: “There must have been 20 of them sounding off in the area.” (Whip-poor-wills are another species of wildlife that need densely regrowing young forest.) On the Lake Tomahawk and Ackley demo areas, Roth captures golden-winged warblers in mist nets, then puts colored bands on their legs so that she can monitor their use of the habitat and their nesting success.

One goal of the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership is to have a network of habitat demonstration areas where conservationists can give programs explaining the value of young forest, and where visitors can see, hear, smell, and feel what this kind of habitat is like, plus maybe encounter some of the wild creatures that depend on it.

On the Scale of the Individual Landowner

Roth also sees a need for smaller demo areas. “It can be hard for landowners to visualize how managing their property relates to a large public-lands-based demonstration site," she says. It helps for them to learn about habitat work being done on other private properties, such as the old farm that Mike Gardner owns. “Landowners need people they can talk to, people they can ask ‘Who did you hire to get the management done?’ and ‘How did it turn out in the end?’," Roth says. "Participating landowners can network with other landowners and provide contacts for consulting foresters, biologists, and other conservation specialists who can give advice on how to best manage the land to promote young forest.”

Holtz notes that landowners may be hunters interested in boosting numbers of gamebirds, such as ruffed grouse and woodcock, or birders who want to enjoy seeing and listening to a whole suite of young-forest birds that dropped out of the picture as their woods became middle-aged or older. “Our goal is not to eliminate or discourage old-growth forests,” Holtz says. “We’re trying to impress on folks the importance of having a range of different ages of trees and shrubs, which leads to having a range of different kinds of wildlife.”

Female warbler on nest

Female golden-winged warbler on nest./L. Stout

He adds, “The fact is that an area of forest will stay ‘young’ for only a brief period – maybe ten to twenty years in typical habitats in this part of Wisconsin. Young forest has been disappearing in Wisconsin over the last half century, and as a result, the populations of animals that need this habitat have dwindled. The Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership is a collaborative effort to reverse the trend of young forest loss and wildlife decline.”

Although he’s been a natural resources professional throughout his career, Mike Gardner reports that he learned a lot about wildlife and wildlife habitat when he began talking with Holtz, Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society biologist Gary Zimmer, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mark Pfost as they walked his land exploring ways of restoring the habitat. “The work that came out of this planning gave me a management toehold,” Gardner says. “After that initial push, I can now do a lot of the continuing habitat work myself, including mowing with a tractor to keep the shrubs young and vigorous. The project has let me renew my personal commitment to having a diversity of wildlife habitats of different ages on my land.”

He adds, “I look forward to spending time on the farmstead in spring, going out with my wife at dusk and listening to the woodcock singing, watching for birds in the alders and the cleared area that we opened up. Who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky enough to have golden-winged warblers nest on the property as well.”

Funding and Partners

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ruffed Grouse Society, American Bird Conservancy, Michigan Tech University, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

Scroll down farther on this list of habitat projects to learn more about young forest habitat demonstration areas on public lands in Wisconsin. Below, find a 2012 report by Amber Roth detailing recent habitat work at these and other demonstration areas as well as scientific research findings. Contact Jeremy Holtz at 715-365-8999 or Amber Roth is at