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Managing AL roadsides for wildlife conservation

From the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

-- Managing Alabama's forests and fields to improve wildlife habitat every year uses prescribed fire, herbicides, timber harvest, and other management practices to make these areas more beneficial to various wildlife species. Areas often ignored by habitat managers are the strips of land between their property's private roads and the adjoining forests and fields - the roadsides.

Roadsides make up a small fraction of the total acreage on most properties, but can produce high-quality wildlife habitat with just a little management. Managing these areas for native forbs (a herb other than grass) and grasses  such as broomsedge, goldenrod, ragweed and blackberry, creates exceptional nesting and brood rearing habitat for many species of birds. Roadsides double as well  traveled corridors, feeding areas and escape cover for countless wildlife species.

Much like field borders, roadsides provide an opportunity for managers to create early successional habitat that is essential for numerous wildlife species, but is frequently lacking on forested landscapes.  

If manageable roadsides are not available, they must be created. Daylighting roadsides in conjunction with logging operations often can be the most cost effective approach. However,  this can delay creation of these manageable areas by many years depending on timber age or size. Utilizing a bulldozer, mulching head-equipped tractor or tractor with heavy rotary mower to remove trees and other woody vegetation can be quick and effective at converting woody areas to early successional areas, yet cost can be prohibitive for many landowners or land managers.

Trees and woody brush also can be removed using chainsaws, axes, herbicides, fire, or any other of a long list of methods. This approach is slow, but is no less effective and much cheaper.

Land managers should keep in mind that managed roadsides do not have to be exceptionally wide or long to be productive. Unmanageable factors such as steep topography may dictate the use of smaller strips.  Those that are 45 feet wide or wider and several hundred feet long are ideal, but strips as narrow as 15 feet wide and as short as 100 feet long can be managed to provide quality habitat.

It may be necessary to control non-native pasture grasses such as Bahia, Bermuda or fescue with approved herbicides prior to implementing other management practices. Without proper control, these grasses can prevent desired native grasses and weeds from becoming established.

If the desired native plant communities are not present or are not present in insufficient quantities, planting native grasses and forbs is also  option. Seeds of native forbs such as common ragweed, partridge pea, and Florida beggarweed, and native grasses such as big and little bluestem, Eastern gamagrass and switchgrass are available from commercial vendors. Seed costs often are expensive, but are also a one-time expense as plants become established and roadsides are properly managed.

Numerous methods are available to maintain the roadside vegetation in an early successional stage of development. Discing, burning, mowing and selective herbicides can be used alone or in combination. The method, timing and frequency of treatment will dictate the types of native plants that come back after treatment.

For example, fall discing tends to promote hard-seeded forbs and legumes, while spring discing promotes annual grasses. Annually treated areas will be dominated by annual grasses, while areas treated on a longer rotation of three to five years will have a more diverse mixture of annual and perennial plants.

Treatments should be alternated on a one to five year rotation to achieve a mixture of the desired grass/herbaceous plant communities. Treat one-fourth to one-third of an established roadside system each year in convenient segments. A segment, for example, may be one side of a road, with another segment located on the opposite side of the road. Treat an adjacent segment the following year.

This regime will perpetually maintain different stages of plant succession and types of plants that are beneficial to many wildlife species. Without this rotational management, managed roadsides can quickly lose much of their value for wildlife. Early successional habitat is a key component often missing from properties managed for wildlife. Opportunities to establish and maintain the forbs and grasses associated with this type of habitat are not easily found or available. Utilizing roadsides for this purpose creates a tremendous amount of habitat diversity, which can transform an ordinary property into a wildlife haven. 

-By Chris Cook, Certified Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

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