Every October around 30 Hoosiers come together in the middle of a forest near Trafalger, Ind., for a four-day nature experience. The group spends the cool fall days hiking under a canopy of brightly colored leaves. Some are city slickers and others have spent their entire lives in the country, but they're all there for the same reason. They are learning how to manage their forests to provide a better home for wildlife and to enhance timber growth.
This hands-on approach to forest management has been a hit with landowners. Since its inception in 2001, the Indiana Coverts Program has trained more than 80 forestland owners and managers who control more than 11,000 acres of Indiana forestland. A partnership among Purdue Extension, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the coverts program teaches landowners about wildlife and forest management practices so they can improve their woodlands and share their knowledge with others.
Seventy-six percent of Indiana 's forestland is in private hands, so management is key both to the state's economy and the health and future of wildlife. "Nine out of 10 timber harvests by private landowners are conducted without any long-term management goals in mind," says Brian MacGowan, Purdue Extension wildlife specialist and coordinator of the Indiana Coverts Program. "A lot of our forests aren't managed to their full potential.
"Natural disturbances in forests, such as fires, have been minimized," he says. "But some wildlife species, such as the ruffed grouse and American woodcock, depend on disturbed habitats and will suffer without them. Timber management can provide these necessary disturbances. The key is that the disturbances need to be relatively large. Cutting a tree here and there doesn't create the young, dense forest stands required by these species."
helps landowners improve habitats for wildlife, including
game birds like ruffed grouse. (Photo courtesy Ruffed
Creating a habitat friendly to wildlife was high on the list for Robert Woodling. The first thing he did after he attended the coverts program in 2003 was to walk his property. "I was looking for areas that I knew I needed to thin, especially for wildlife habitats," he says.
Woodling owns 100 acres of forestland in Monroe County near the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. "When I moved here, we had grouse, but, after the woods grew up, the grouse moved on," he says. "I wanted to see if I could get them to come back."
Through the coverts program, Woodling learned that grouse, game birds that nest on the ground, prefer young trees about 4 to 6 inches in diameter and spaced a little further apart than their wingspan, but not far enough apart that a hawk or an owl can come through. To achieve this balance, Woodling needed to take out some trees.
"I believe in not wasting anything and recycling everything and managing this forest so that when we're gone, the forest will be better off," says Woodling, who used timber harvested from his land to construct a barn. "This thinning is something that was necessary for wildlife. I've had three different harvests, and I'll probably have one more in my lifetime. What I'm doing now is trying to get the low-quality trees out and turn them into something useable."