With help from DNR grant program, Michigan districts improve deer habitat

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Michigan conservation districts are partnering with local hunting groups, schools and private landowners to fill in forestry gaps and improve deer and other wildlife habitat through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) deer habitat improvement grants in the Upper Peninsula.

“In a backdoor way, we’re getting people to improve the habitat as a whole,” Alger Conservation District Executive Director Teri Grout said. “Everything needs food, everything needs shelter and when you’ve got a diversity of plants, especially native plants that have evolved to fit in, you actually improve things exponentially, sometimes in ways you didn’t anticipate.

“Having a balanced forest like that is healthy for the entire ecosystem and all sorts of wildlife,” she said.

In its 11th year of the program, Michigan DNR awarded $100,000 to 11 projects in April, including those in six conservation districts.

“The conservation districts are really good at reaching out to the landowner and getting work done on the ground,” DNR Wildlife Division Field Operations Manager Bill Scullon said.

“The deer become a catalyst,” Scullon said. “The dollars come from hunters, so that’s why we focus on deer, but we recognize that you’re going to benefit other species in this management.”

Alger Conservation District, based in Munising, was awarded $6,800 to work with private landowners in four areas that need habitat improvement. The conservation district will train landowners and volunteers to plant the four sites with white pine, red oak, hazelnut and crabapple seedlings and saplings, and another site will be planted with a clover mix.

The plantings will establish summer, fall and winter forage as well as shelter and improve habitat on about 20 acres of publicly accessible land.

It is the fifth year the conservation district has been involved in the grant program. The projects require a 25 percent match from the district for each grant, so the total value of the project is $11,400. Alger Conservation District has matched $30,258 over its five years in the program.

The conservation district plans to plant between 2,500 and 3,000 trees, in part to bolster thermal cover as well as replenish beech trees that have been decimated by the beech bark disease, caused by a one-two punch from a sap-feeding insect and a fungus that then moves in afterward, eventually killing the tree.

“We’ve lost a lot of beech to beech bark disease over the past 10 years, and it’s always been a primary source for deer and other wildlife,” Grout said.

The areas receiving the plantings are adjacent to publicly accessible lands, so the public benefits as well, she said.

Marquette County Conservation District is also in its fifth year of the program, and this year will be utilizing its $9,500 award on a new project that includes seeding open areas and logging trails to improve habitat.

“We decided to seed in wildlife openings and trail openings,” Marquette County Conservation District Forester Matt Watkeys said. “We’re really focusing on wildlife seeding areas and fruit and nut producing shrubs, hazelnut and fruit and nut producing shrubs.”

For this project, the district also is working with the Ruffed Grouse Society, because the commercial forest property is open to the public for hunting, fishing and trapping. The group is donating nursery stock of fruit and nut producing shrubs and volunteer time for planting.

Oher partners in the project will be the Bays De Noc Gobblers, U.P. Whitetails-Marquette County and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The conservation district is providing a match of $2,375, or 25 percent, for a total project value of $11,875.

“These grants provide us the funds to reach out to the landowners and provide the service for them to get these species planted and produce a good habitat,” Watkeys said. “Every year, I have a working list of landowners who are interested. We wouldn’t be able to spread the wealth without these grants.”

Scullon says that outreach and education is key for Michigan DNR’s participation and fund distribution.

“The biggest part of this really is understated,” he said. “It’s the education. People understand why this is important and it sparks an interest, and they come back to the (conservation district) or DNR and look at getting forest management plans to become eligible for the farm bill programs. It’s a catalyst for us.”

Other recipients include the Iron-Baraga Conservation District, which received $15,000 to plant a total of 525 oaks, 3,850 white pines, 1,550 wildlife shrubs and 255 apples, and provide 780 tree protectors to participating landowners; the Chippewa-Luce-Mackinac Conservation District received $10,000 to develop a project focused on hard and soft mast plantings with 12 or more eligible landowners owning 40 or more acres; the Gogebic Conservation District will use $2,585 toward its project to maintain forest openings and walking trails within the Devils Creek-Chaney Lake deer wintering complex — the Mosinee Grouse Enhanced Management Site — in Gogebic County, and $3,639 to plant abandoned or blocked forest trails and openings on county forest lands within the Little Girls Point deer wintering complex to a clover-trefoil mix; and the Schoolcraft Conservation District received $10,566 for work on Weyerhaeuser Commercial Forest Act lands at seven project sites to establish small wildlife food plots totaling about 8.09 acres.

For more stories like this, check out NACD’s Forestry Notes.

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