Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

It’s for the birds – creating snags for bird habitat

Through the selective use of limbing, topping and girdling and by choosing the right tree in the right place, a snag can be created offering a smorgasbord of insects and a potential home to cavity nesting birds that can last up to 40 or 50 years. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

To the uneducated eye a snag is just an old, dead tree that’s still standing. To the educated eye of Dan Casey from the American Bird Conservancy, however, a snag is crucial wildlife habitat. In the eyes of a Lewis’ Woodpecker, or a Flammulated Owl, or other “cavity nesters,” it looks like a good place to raise a family.

Dead and dying trees are, in fact, an essential component of natural forest ecosystems, providing valuable wildlife habitat and a means for important nutrients to cycle back into the forest. Snags provide essential habitat for approximately one quarter of all breeding birds in western coniferous forests. The dead trees are used by birds for foraging, cavity nesting, perching, food storage and drumming (pecking against the tree to communicate). In the dry forests of the Pacific Northwest dominated by ponderosa pine, there is renewed interest in the importance of snags as part of forest restoration efforts.

As part of this effort the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), a non-profit organization, the mission of which is to conserve native birds and their habitat throughout the Americas, is working with another non-profit, the Forest Restoration Partnership, across the Pacific Northwest designing and implementing cutting-edge habitat restoration projects on private lands. One of these demonstration projects, funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, is located here in the Bitterroot Valley.

This demonstration site is located on 120 acres of wooded land northeast of Stevensville owned by Priscilla Antrim. The site was logged back in 2003 by Cky-Ber Enterprises, a local company owned and operated by Craig Thomas. It is an innovative company that employs state-of-the-art methods to harvest trees in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Thomas recognized a long time ago that much of the environmental damage done by logging could be mitigated at little or no cost to the property owner or the logging operation by practicing a little forethought and simply avoiding the kind of activity that creates the most damage.

“A lot of times it is just a matter of educating the guy on the ground with the saw and the one driving the skidder,” said Thomas.

Thomas plans out his logging activity with an eye toward leaving a natural looking landscape in the end. He calls it a “random mosaic.” If you look at areas like this one and others in the north valley logged by Thomas, they cannot be readily recognized as old logging sites. Open spaces are created, but clumps of thick growth are left sporadically, creating hiding places that animals can duck into for cover, as well as ribbons of forested area along some draws, which provide safe corridors for animals to travel. Now, working with Casey from ABC, Thomas has returned to some of his sites for a little snag creation.

Due to past fire management and logging practices, a lack of snags was created that led to the decline in population of several bird species associated with snags. As awareness of the importance of this element of the forest grew, loggers, especially on the national forests, began to leave snags. But these trees, usually isolated and standing in the open, were extremely susceptible to blow down, defeating the purpose for which they were left. Since then the “science” of creating good, long lasting snags has slowly developed.

There are a number of ways to create a good snag. They typically involve limbing, topping, girdling, and even using bugs to kill the tree by placing pheromone attractants on the tree. The aim is to create some snags that will be quickly available and others that will come to be snags over time. By picking the right tree and giving it the right treatment a snag may be produced that will last up to 40 years.

Another innovative part of the snag creation program is the placement of nesting boxes on some of the snags to provide immediate habitat for the cavity nesters such as the Lewis’s Woodpecker, Flammulated Owl and even the Mountain Bluebird. This gives the birds a temporary nesting place while the snag comes on line. Casey said that the addition of nesting boxes has proven helpful in the transition period on other sites throughout the Northwest.

Anyone interested in learning more about these practices may contact Dan Casey of the American Bird Conservancy at 406-756-2681 or Craig Thomas at 363-8742.


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