Hunter walking trails make wildlife more accessible

A ground-level view from one of the hunter walking trails off Camp 5 Road in Iron County.

Nov. 16, 2012

Ever wonder what happens to the logging roads that are created during a timber sale, after the cutting is finished and the timber harvest is over? In many cases, the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division is using those roads to create hunter walking trails that not only allow better access to sportsmen but also are designed to attract game species, too. A ground-level view from one of the hunter walking trails off Camp 5 Road in Iron County. The DNR has converted more than 20 such former logging roads to hunter walking trails - this one with a mix of planted clover and rye grass. (Image on the right.)

The people already making use of the trails know they're a valuable piece of the successful hunting puzzle. The trails have become an excellent, easily accessible place from which to seek out a variety of wildlife - deer, small game and upland game birds - or to introduce young hunters to the sport.

"We've done this sort of work for years," explained Monica Joseph, the wildlife biologist in the DNR's Crystal Falls office. "We've focused a lot of deer habitat work along hunter walking trails, usually on state forest land often using Deer Range Improvement funds.

Stan Budreau and Kurt Hogue drill a post hole for hanging a hunter walking trail gate."Now, we're working with hunting groups and not necessarily on state forest lands. For instance, we've used Woodcock Initiative money for similar projects on school forest lands. These resources are well used by hunters anyway and they are open to the public."

Joseph stressed that such trail-enhancement projects are confirmed and approved by the appropriate school board prior to site selection.

Last year, the DNR created hunter walking trails on some lands managed by timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) - land that is enrolled in the Commercial Forest Act (CFA) and open to the public for hunting.

"The timber folks did a fair share of the leg work, selecting sites that were available and being present while the work was ongoing," Joseph said. "We wanted the final work to be approved by their field people. They were quite hands-on throughout site selection and trail development."

A view up a hunter walking trail off Camp 5 Road in Iron County in the western U.P.The partnering opportunities on such projects are broad. Joseph said work on other trail systems has involved using federal wild turkey program money on both state-managed and TIMO and real estate investment trust (REIT) lands. The TIMO/REIT will work directly through the local sportsmen's club and National Wild Turkey Federation chapter to secure support - rather than use state turkey program funds.

The effort to put more hunter walking trails in place isn't necessarily designed to attract and house more wildlife - though that's often a positive end result - but rather to provide accessible hunting and recreation opportunities for the public in places where wildlife is abundant.

"It's generally a 'go to' place with easy walking and often it's a loop system so users of the trails can go and come back on the same trails."

After a timber harvest has been completed, the DNR will often come in and plant a clover/rye mix - a clover seeding with a rye cover crop - that does well even on poor soils.

Kurt Hogue and Stan Budreau prep and install a new gate along the hunter walking trail."It's a pretty generic mix and many of the wildlife species we have prefer it," Joseph said. "So we might have seeded an area with grouse money, but there will be deer and bear using that same area. It improves habitat for not only the game species, but nongame species, too. We get what we want out of it at a low cost and it's pretty simple to do."

Most importantly, the clover/rye mix is not exotic/invasive, and therefore a smart fit with existing management and treatment plans for Michigan's state forest lands.

Joseph said there are 23 officially listed hunter walking trails in her area of the western Upper Peninsula. Many other trails that have been similarly developed but are not designated as "hunter walking trails" since their primary purpose is to remain as viable logging roads.

"Some of them will be added, some will fall off the books," she said. "We drop the ones that are high-maintenance or need heavy equipment and we keep the ones that are most preferred by sportsmen. When we hear from sportsmen about trails that they really use or really like, we prioritize the maintenance of those trails.

Kurt Hogue and Stan Budreau prep and install a new gate along the hunter walking trail."We switched to this sort of process 20 years ago; instead of making new openings, we'd go into a new logging road and take advantage of the opening that was already created."

Joseph said the seeding helps to prevent erosion on the road system and attract wildlife.

"We tend to go back in every 10 years when the clover and rye are pretty much gone, and then we rework it and reseed it," she explained.

Beyond the seeding and development of the trails, it's important to ensure the trails are protected from unwanted vehicular traffic. In the past, many of the logging roads - built specifically for the purpose of transporting harvested timber and logging equipment - were bermed to prevent vehicle traffic after a timber sale was closed; in recent years, the DNR has favored the installation of gates.

"We're looking more at gates as we go through the system," Joseph said. "We've started gating some of the more elaborate trail systems, and any that our groups are working on we try to sign and gate.

"We have some sportsmen groups that have taken responsibility for maintaining some of the hunter walking trails, to keep them in better condition. It's all done under our supervision, of course, and it still goes through our forest compartment reviews," she explained.

By installing gates that are large enough - generally 13 to 16 feet wide - it's easier for the trails to accommodate tractors and future logging equipment when future timber harvest are planned along logging road trail systems. Joseph said that makes it much easier for the groups responsible for the trails to gain access in order to do the needed maintenance work.

A variety of conservation groups - the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Wild Turkey Federation and county chapters of Wildlife Unlimited and U.P. Whitetails, for example - have signed on as partners. Joseph said there's no question it is because of the help of these organizations and individuals that many of the trails remain open and in excellent shape. A number of the areas are signed and are noted on maps available at local DNR offices.

Joseph said her goal is to eventually get all open hunter walking trails into the DNR's Mi-HUNT system, with a county-specific look-up feature. Mi-HUNT is an interactive, online tool that helps hunters and outdoor explorers of all stripes search for and locate land that meets their specific needs.

"We're working on making these trails more recognizable to the public," Joseph said. "The trails the sportsmen's groups have taken responsibility for are well marked, well maintained and easier and more accessible for outdoor enthusiasts to use and enjoy."

It's a partnership that continues the tradition of making the most of Michigan's natural resources recreationally and economically; ensuring their long-term health and sustainability; and providing better and broader public access for residents' and visitors' enjoyment.

Learn more about available hunter walking trails by calling your local DNR office. To explore Mi-HUNT's offerings (recreational facilities, hunting lands, topography, cover types and aerial imagery), visit www.michigan.gov/mihunt.