Creating a Better Place For Wildlife

By Mark Nikolaisen | January 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2005

A few years ago, after many years of looking, I purchased about 100 acres of land near Maramec Spring, between St. James and Steelville. I was as proud as a new father to own an Ozark garden of many oaks, hickories and dogwoods.

The previous owner had selectively logged the property less than a decade earlier. Some areas were so choked with new growth that I couldn't walk through them. As I learned later, this was not a bad thing. New growth offers wildlife food and shelter. A rejuvenating forest may not be as pretty as a mature oak forest, but it has its own subtle beauty.

My goal for my new property was to provide food and shelter for a diverse variety of wildlife. I also wanted to clean it up a bit. My task appeared formidable. The property was basically 99 percent woods and had no permanent water. It also was littered with discarded tree tops in various stages of decay.

My business experience taught me to "plan my work and work my plan." My first step was to formulate a comprehensive rehabilitation and management plan for my land. Mike Martin, a Private Land Conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, helped me put my plan into action.

I cleared, limed, disced, fertilized and cultivated miles of walking paths. These paths are about 8 feet wide and contain orchard grass, spring oats, Korean lespedeza and ladino clover. It was important for wildlife not to consume all my planting efforts, and for spring rains not to wash them all away. So, in addition to hard work, I needed a little luck.

Thanks to hard work and that much appreciated good luck, I now have 400-yard green paths where before there was bare dirt, leaves, rocks and sticks.

Picture walking on these paths, surrounded by large oaks and hickories. In other areas, these grassy paths are bordered by thick vegetation fueled by full sun. There, you can see and hear colorful songbirds flying in and out of the brush.

I also had to deal with the expansive tops of the big trees that were logged by the previous owner, as well as cut logs that were left behind. I pushed these into ravines to slow runoff from hard rains. I cut others to speed their decay, and others I simply piled up and burned.

The many hand-made brushpiles near these grassy areas are important, too. Small lizards and other creatures are clearly visible where we never noticed them before. Ground-nesting birds also have more places to nest and raise their young.

Judging from wildlife tracks, browsed grass and droppings, deer and turkey appreciate the changes on my property. An abundance of insects in the grass are important food for young turkeys.

Other improvements to my property include a wildlife watering hole to provide water in the summer. I am still amazed at how quickly frogs found this new water, and at how quickly they populated it. The wildlife prints in the mud show many different visitors.

I've also attempted to create my own little bunch of prairies. They range in size from one-quarter acre to a half acre. Certain logged areas receive full sunlight, making them perfect locations for prairies. I planted them with sideoats gramma, little bluestem and Indian grass. It was challenging trying to broadcast these seeds because they are so light and fluffy. I used sand and kitty litter as seed carriers.

It takes years for these prairies to mature, but they will greatly benefit wildlife. That's the whole idea. When other grasses go dormant in the heat, these native grasses should grow strong. I cut no shorter than 8 inches, and I don't cut after August 1.

The most heavily logged areas are on rocky ground. There I've planted hundreds of saplings, especially shortleaf pines, the only pine tree native to Missouri. To help them grow, I fortified their roots with top soil and peat moss, then created a little dirt dish around the trunks to hold water. I topped it off with mulch and water.

At times, the deer and the late summer heat can be too much for the saplings. Some will perish, but the survivors will re-establish what we hope will be a healthy string of pine groves.

While it took considerable effort to get started, my conservation project requires surprisingly little maintenance. For the enjoyment it provides, the project has been well worth the effort. As I walk my paths, watching deer, turkey and songbirds I've never seen before, I believe the wildlife approves of my efforts, as well.

Labor of Love

Private Land Conservationist Mike Martin, who works in the Conservation Department's Ozark Region, helped Mark Nikolaisen formulate and implement a successful wildlife management plan on his property. Mike provided the following notes on the project.

 "Some of the forested areas on Mark's land were harvested and cut pretty hard before he purchased the property. Even though the harvest methods are not what we would have recommended, the thick regeneration areas are providing excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife species. A new generation of trees also has been released to perpetuate the forest.

"I suggested to Mark that he not try to remove the understory vegetation and to resist the urge to clean up too much of the logging debris on his property. Those brush piles he's making will make great habitat. All that material will be recycled in due time and will contribute nutrients to the flush of plant growth in the newly opened areas.

You should really anticipate some damage by deer to the tree seedlings that you plant. That is just natural and is part of the process. Use tree shelters or tree guards on the special trees that you purchased and plant enough of the shortleaf pine so that the deer damage is manageable.

"I'm glad that he's working to control erosion. Keeping the thin Ozark soils in place is critical, and in the long run will lead to better plant growth and improved water quality.

"Like many landowners, Mark is in love with his property and is willing to do whatever it takes to make his land better for wildlife."

"Mark's success is a testimony to hard work and commitment. He didn't own heavy equipment that would have made the work easier. He had to complete most of it with handwork and elbow grease.

"You can't really call all the hard work he puts into it labor. Many absentee landowners can hardly wait until Friday, so they can exit the city and get out to the 'farm' to do what they really enjoy. Sometimes, it is really hard for them to go home on Sunday. "

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler