Michigan DNR adds 'featured species' approach to habitat management

The American woodcock is a Michigan DNR featured species for early successional forests.

July 3, 2014

From pine barrens to oak savannah, prairie fens to young aspen, state-managed land in Michigan offers a vast array of ecosystem and habitat types, which all call for differing approaches to habitat and wildlife management.

To best manage these various habitats, the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division has adopted guidelines that put the focus on "featured species" found in each ecosystem or habitat type - a management style that improves the department's ability to effectively measure outcomes and better engage the public in discussing and developing plans and goals.

To make featured-species management a reality, over the last five years the Wildlife Division has been compiling a list of featured species to guide its management practices. With 42 statewide species and a handful of regionally featured species, the list is designed to help guide DNR habitat work and provide a framework for measuring the impacts of that work.

"We used to talk about ecosystem management. The problem is that the term is so overused that it has no clear meaning," explained DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason. "More important, it isn't measurable. Ask 10 people what ecosystem management means and you'll get 10 answers."

Black bear is among the species the DNR will use to gauge habitat-improvement projects statewide.The featured-species approach is not a return to long-ago, single-species management, Mason said. Instead, featured species are representative of groups of species with similar habitat requirements. Besides providing a way to measure the effectiveness of habitat management, the featured-species concept is easier to explain. Stakeholders and partners get a better idea what management is about.

"If we clear-cut a stand in the Upper Peninsula, we can easily explain the 'why' - benefits to deer, ruffed grouse, woodcock and golden-winged warblers, for example," Mason said.

"Ecosystems are poorly understood because they are enormously complicated," he added. "Instead, we manipulate specific features for measurable habitat and wildlife outcomes. What's different today is that we're being explicit about it."

DNR wildlife biologist Kerry Fitzpatrick designed the process for identifying featured species and writing habitat guidelines for them.

"When I came to the department I was hired to work on habitat management," Fitzpatrick said. "There was a focus on natural communities and ecosystems, but it was hard to easily describe what we were managing for."

Need an example? Fitzpatrick said restoring an oak barren is a good one.

"The thought was, we restore a habitat and everything else will take care of itself," he said. "Well, how are we going to measure it? As a wildlife division, shouldn't we be measuring our success by wildlife's response to management activities?

"Most of our stakeholders are not familiar with terms like oak barrens or pine savannahs. They don't usually think or talk in ecological terms. But, when we start talking about the animals that depend on barrens and savannahs, they understand. We need to be able to communicate our plans clearly."

The Karner blue butterfly, threatened in Michigan, is a featured species for DNR habitat management.The Wildlife Division started by asking questions internally, compiling a list, taking it to stakeholders in meetings across the state for feedback, and then revising and presenting again to stakeholders - to make sure the division got it right, Mason said.

It seems the Wildlife Division is in good company with this featured-species approach.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is following suit, developing lists of what they're calling 'surrogate species,'" Mason said. "They're adopting the featured-species concept as well. It's an effective and clear way of being able to not only explain what we do - but also quantify what we do - on the landscape."

As Fitzpatrick explains it, when habitat work concentrated on an ecosystem approach, the only way the division could quantify what it accomplished was by acreage. But what if those acres weren't of high quality for the creatures that use it? By seeing a response in a featured species, wildlife managers can tell whether the work is having its intended effect.

Fitzpatrick said the idea of manipulating habitat to produce feature species prompted the Wildlife Division to ask four questions:

  • Where are we?
  • Where are we going?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • Did we get there?

Ring-necked pheasant"By looking at featured species, we can answer those four questions," he said.

Not all Wildlife Division staffers were on board when the process began. Mark Sargent, then the private lands specialist, said he had grave concerns at first, but as he thought more about it, he became convinced that this route was the way to go.

"When I went to college, they stopped holding waterfowl management class and started having wetlands management class," Sargent said. "But we manage habitats for critters and we can't really know what we've done until we put a critter in there and we can evaluate it. Should we spend money restoring a habitat if it doesn't benefit the critters and the people who like them or want them? Restorations are more valuable if we restore a system that also benefits wildlife.

"It doesn't mean we're not managing for a whole suite of species at the same time," he continued. "When we do grassland management for pheasants, we can do that in a way that also benefits meadowlarks and bobolinks."

Simply developing the featured-species list was challenging, Sargent said.

Volunteers helped restore a large grassland as part of the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative."In order to make the list, a species had to have two characteristics - it had to be valuable and it had to have habitat needs that we could address," he explained

"Like woodcock - we know what they need and we know what we can do," Sargent said. "But other species - like loons, for instance - didn't make the list. That doesn't mean they don't have value. Loons have value.

"There are featured species for most habitat types - species that represent fens, or prairie or old growth," Sargent continued. "If you're looking at a particular habitat, you have several featured species associated with it. Generally, there are three or four species that you can manage for at a specific game area or habitat type or vegetative system. We can identify our management activities when we frame them with a species because that's the output product."

Fitzpatrick uses grasslands to illustrate this point. A vast expanse of manicured short grass may be good for a species such as robins, but does nothing for species that need tall grass - like pheasants. And even a vast tract of tall grass isn't optimal for pheasants if it doesn't have a winter-cover component, too.

"We have to look at the primary limiting habitat problem - wintering areas for pheasants or deer yards for northern Michigan whitetails - then identify treatments," he said.

Al Stewart, the DNR's upland game bird specialist, said the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative is a prime example of managing for a featured species.

"We're looking at it at a broader landscape level," he said. "We're looking at the life requirements of a particular animal within that unit. It helps us be more focused on what we want to accomplish and why."

The 42 species on the statewide list include game animals, furbearers, nongame animals, threatened and endangered species - even insects. The list includes everything from black bear to massasauga rattlesnakes to Karner blue butterflies.

For more information on the DNR's featured species and how the department manages habitat, visit www.michigan.gov/wildlife.