Land Talk With Kevin – Wildlife Habitat and Pine Plantations (Part 1)

By Kevin Daugherty

This week I’ll start the discussion on managing wildlife habitat in pine plantations. I estimate that more than half of our forests in the upland portions of central Louisiana are pine. Many believe that a pine stand managed intensively for timber production can’t produce quality deer habitat and, with so many acres of it, many sportsman are afraid wildlife habitat has been destroyed. As I stated last week, I actually prefer to manage wildlife habitat in pine stands over hardwood. However, the debate over hardwood and pine is not the most important issue, how we manage our timber stand is. The key is to use a management strategy that not only provides you with an economically viable timber stand but also provides wildlife with quality habitat.

A few terms you’ll hear me use a lot are overstory, understory, plant succession, and disturbance. All are important in combining timber and good wildlife habitat production. The overstory is our cash crop, in this case pine trees. The understory is what’s growing underneath the pines. We have to intensively manage both and, in fact, managing the understory is the key to having good deer and turkey habitat. Everyone manages the overstory when they periodically thin their timber but its rare today to see the understory controlled and managed.

Plant succession simply refers to the progressive change in the plant community. If you harvest all the timber on a tract of land here in the south, the first plants to grow back are going to be grasses, forbs, and shrubs. A few common examples here in Louisiana are broomsedge, greenbrier, honeysuckle, ragweed, beggar’s-lice, goldenrod, beautyberry, and blackberry. Over time, without continued disturbance, these plants are outcompeted and start being replaced by trees. Given more time, the trees mature and shade out the early succession plants. This is forest succession in a nutshell. As wildlife managers we are, in one form or another, constantly fighting back succession because the early plants offer the best food and cover for deer, turkeys, rabbits, and a multitude of other wildlife. Remember, a deer’s world is from the ground up to about four feet high. They are early succession animals. The longer we can provide early successional habitat, the more they are attracted to our property.

So how do we control plant succession? We so by disturbance. Disturbance can come in several forms. There are catastrophic disturbances such as damaging wind, wildfire, and even insect outbreaks such as southern pine beetle. Many years ago, they came in the form of great herds of buffalo moving across the plains or Native Americans setting fires to reduce “rough” vegetation, improve hunting, and create space for crops. Today we create disturbances by harvesting timber, prescribed burning, and directed use of herbicide. In the
above paragraph, we started the succession process off by harvesting timber. You simply can’t keep vegetation at a deer’s level without disturbing it or knocking it back.

So, how do we grow pine trees and, at the same time, create disturbances to promote early successional habitat? We manage the overstory and understory almost as separate components. Once the pines grow to pulpwood size, we open (thin) the overstory enough to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of the understory. Then we manipulate and manage what grows there and keep it in reach of deer. Simple enough, right? The problem, as it relates to pine plantations and wildlife habitat, is when the understory isn’t managed. We’ve got the timber harvesting part down (a lot of you are saying “AMEN” or something worse right about now). Where we fall short is in managing the understory between harvests. There are countless acres of pine stands where the understory is 10-12 feet tall and choked with yaupon, privet, saw briar, and hardwood saplings. Most of the sparse nutritious food that’s out there isn’t even within a deer’s reach. This is not good wildlife habitat and a big reason deer sightings and hunting success falls off when a pine stand reaches this stage.

I believe the biggest problem in our pine forests today is that, for various reasons, most landowners have by and large stopped using prescribed fire as a management tool. A controlled fire is by far the best means of manipulating wildlife habitat in a pine stand. Dollar for dollar, it’s the most cost-effective tool we have.

Next week, we’ll back up and look at the life cycle of a pine stand and the management practices we can employ at each stage. Until then, get out and enjoy your land!

Kevin Daugherty is a forestry and wildlife consultant, real estate agent, and the managing member of ForestLand Associates, LLC. He’s a member of the Association of Consulting Foresters, Louisiana Forestry Association, Society of American Foresters, and is a Land Certification Inspector for the Quality Deer Management Association. He and his wife live in rural Winn Parish. For questions about this article Kevin can be reached at (318) 312-1240 or 

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