Mineland to Young Forest in PA

From Pennsylvania Game News

HUNTINGTON COUNTY – Even 20 acres of rejuvenated young forest can help local wildlife in a big way. That's the goal behind restoring an old strip-mined area on State Game Lands 121, managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in southcentral Pennsylvania.


Step one involved using an excavator to till compacted clay-and-shale soil down to 36 inches on the barren mined site./C. Lutz

The site was like many of Pennsylvania's old surface mines: a compacted mix of shale, coal slag, and heavy clay that had stayed relatively lifeless for some 60 years, supporting little vegetation except for a few hardy weeds and some straggling invasive shrubs, none of which provided good food and cover for wildlife.

"The tract resembled an abandoned parking lot and had about the same wildlife habitat value," said Clayton Lutz, the Game Commission wildlife biologist who planned and oversaw the habitat restoration project.

However, neighboring shrubland and a powerline right-of-way supported a small population of golden-winged warblers – songbirds that nest on or near the ground in areas with dense young trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Lutz and his conservation colleagues wanted to help that population thrive and expand.

In December 2015, workers used a large excavator to deep-till strips of soil on the 20 acres to a depth of 36 inches. That helped aerate the soil and reduce compaction.

Lime and fertilizer were applied to raise the soil's pH and add nutrients, creating a much better growing medium for plants. Trees and shrubs likely to thrive in the modified ground were planted in early 2016.

"Despite last summer's record heat and persistent drought, plants on the site have become well-established," said Lutz. "About 80 percent of the shrubs and trees we planted survived. Goldenrod, bee-balm, and wild asters are also thriving."


After liming and fertilizing, lush growth of native vegetation returned in just one growing season. Golden-winged warblers may soon nest on the rejuvenated 20 acres. Other wildlife will use the habitat, too./C. Lutz

In years to come, as the trees and shrubs grow and the vegetation thickens, biologists will return to this 20-acre tract to document whether golden-wings and other wildlife that need young forest use the improved habitat.

"I think golden-winged warblers could begin using the site quickly – they may even start nesting there this coming spring," says Lutz. "With 20 acres, there's a high percentage of edge habitat that will offer taller trees that male golden-wings can use as singing perches. And the new growth of plants like goldenrod and aster will provide places where females can build nests."

When the habitat gradually fills in and the plants thrive, other animals likely to use the site include ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, black bears, cottontail rabbits, and a range of songbirds. American woodcock may drop in to the shrubby habitat during migration.

Hunters will benefit from the enhanced habitat, which is readily accessible from a nearby parking area. Birders who visit the site, as well as hikers, will have a better chance of seeing interesting wildlife.

Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funds were used to carry out the project. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the WSFR program channels funding to states for use in enhancing wildlife habitat. Those funds come from a tax on the purchase of hunting and fishing equipment.

The golden-winged warbler is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Pennsylvania, as well as in 18 other eastern states, because the species’ population has been falling for decades.

In response to this situation, the Pennsylvania Golden-winged Warbler Habitat Initiative began in 2011, with a goal of enhancing and creating habitat needed by this songbird.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is one of many partners in the initiative, along with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, and the Wildlife Management Institute.

Partners' efforts so far have resulted in more than 39,000 acres of potential golden-winged warbler breeding habitat created on both private and public lands in the Keystone State.