Volunteers boost wildlife habitat improvement efforts in big way

Volunteers use chainsaws to drop marked trees for the brush piles.

March 14, 2013

Some 30 volunteers met up with Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division employees on a recent Sunday at Gratiot-Saginaw State Game Area for a first-ever work day, building brush piles to provide habitat for rabbit and other wildlife species.

Recent changes in state law allow for volunteers to work alongside DNR staffers on habitat improvement projects on state-managed land. The "rabbitat" project - as it's come to be known - was a follow-up effort to similar work done a few years back by DNR employees.

"Wildlife Division employees built some brush piles in this area about three years ago. It worked out so well, we decided to try it with volunteers this time because we really wanted it done but our personnel have too many other priority projects right now," said Doug Reeves, assistant chief of the DNR Wildlife Division. A handful of volunteers used chainsaws to drop marked trees for the brush piles. The trees used for brush included dead or dying ash, aspens encroaching on open fields, and invasive species such as autumn olive and scotch pine. (Image on the right.)

Volunteers creating 'rabbitat' brush piles.Beyond the mounting duties and responsibilities facing Wildlife staff, Reeves said the number of staff in the division has decreased in the last 10 years due to attrition, budget cuts and rising costs; so this new option allowing volunteers is a great help.

In his 2013-14 budget proposal, Gov. Rick Snyder outlined a restructured package of hunting and fishing licenses that would generate additional revenue to better support Michigan's fish and wildlife habitat programs.

Right now, volunteers partnering with the Wildlife Division are making a significant difference that translates into increased on-the-ground improvements for the state's woods and water.

"I live nearby, so I've come out here to check and there are always rabbits here," Reeves said. "I've seen pheasant tracks going into these piles, robins, catbirds, all kinds of birds. I've even seen a chipmunk sitting on one of these piles.

"The brush piles are doing what we intended them to do - attract wildlife."

The volunteers heeded a call from Michigan United Conservation Clubs to participate in the work day. MUCC's Drew YoungeDyke, grassroots manager for the organization, said he spread the word through the group's magazine and email lists, as well as at various sports shows and sporting goods stores.

"We're going to be doing this all around the state for both fisheries and wildlife," YoungeDyke said. "It's about building a statewide stewardship ethic as well as improving the habitat.

Volunteers drag cut trees into brush piles that become valuable wildlife habitat."We had about 30 people say they'd come and that's how many showed up," said YoungeDyke, who is working with DNR staff to identify appropriate volunteer projects. "Hunters, anglers and outdoorsmen keep their word; they said they'd show up and they did."

The volunteers were divided into work groups with a handful of chain-sawyers who dropped appropriate trees to make the brush piles. Reeves spent a previous evening marking the trees to be cut - dead or dying ash trees, aspens that were encroaching on open fields, and other trees that aren't especially valuable wildlife habitat - in places in or near openings that attract wildlife.

"We're also getting rid of invasive species at the same time - autumn olive and scotch pine," Reeves said.

The work is relatively simple. After the trees are dropped and sawed into pieces, the volunteers build a lattice with the larger logs and then pile additional tree tops and brush atop it. The base gives small game animals a way to get into the pile and away from predators, creating an area where they can den and shelter young.

Disabled veteran Jason Webb and Kyra Dewyer helping at the Gratiot-Saginaw work day.Jason Webb, 30, a disabled veteran, brought his girlfriend and drove 100 miles from his home in Westland after reading about the work day in Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine.

"We thought we'd come give a hand," said Webb. "I try to stay outside as much as possible; it's better than sitting in front of the darn TV."

Roger Fowler of Vestaburg, who was running a chainsaw, showed up after meeting YoungeDyke at a Cabela's store.

"I thought it would be a good learning experience for me," said the 67-year-old, self-employed timber man. "I thought I could learn something to apply to my 30 acres. I think it's a great idea."

Donald Eldridge, a co-director of the Friends of Gratiot-Saginaw, said he was tickled by the turnout.

"This is wonderful," he said. "This is just beautiful public hunting land, 16,000 acres, and anything we can do to improve on it enriches the area and provides benefits to us and future generations. I'm pleased with the turnout and hope we can do more of these projects in the future."

Work-day volunteers creating brush piles.John VanHaaren, assistant scoutmaster of Troop 305 in St. Charles, brought half his Boy Scout troop along with a couple of other adults to participate.

"We offered them a chance to give something back to the community," he said. "A lot of them wanted to come out here. It's a good service project and it helps [the Scouts] to advance in their rank."

The work day lasted about six hours, including a lunch break for hot dogs and hamburgers, purchased by MUCC and cooked by a volunteer from the Saginaw Field & Stream Club.

YoungeDyke said MUCC is currently reviewing a list prepared by the DNR of potential habitat projects to see what the group can tackle next.

"We want to make sure we cover all areas of the state and multiple species of fish and wildlife," he said. "This first year we'll go a little bit slow, maybe do five or six projects, and then evaluate how we can do things most efficiently. In future years we'll probably speed up the pace of the projects.

"We built 43 brush piles - ranging from 8 to 10 feet in circumference to some much bigger piles - to give small game and other species a place to escape from predators and get out of the weather.

"We had a lot of comments afterward from volunteers who said they had fun and are looking forward to doing more. They wanted to know when the next project is scheduled."

For anyone who wants to make a positive difference for wildlife, there are plenty of ways to volunteer. As MUCC's volunteer program grows, the DNR fully anticipates more opportunities for volunteers to boost the number of boots on the ground at habitat improvement projects.

For more information, contact Drew YoungeDyke at 517-346-6486 or dyoungedyke@mucc.org. To learn more about the DNR's wildlife and habitat improvement efforts, visit www.michigan.gov/wildlife.