Forest Wildlife Habitat Simplified

Look up at your favorite forest; see the rich canopy of trees overhead, the craggy stems of the overstory trees, standing dead trees full of woodpecker excavations, down logs, a thick understory, duff on the ground…. Now consider all of the creatures that live here. Each one has a specific set of habitat needs, their “niche” in ecological jargon. The forest provides a rich set of these small pieces of habitat for many different species.

When someone wants to know about “wildlife”, I always ask, “What wildlife”?  i.e. which species, and following which niche, or niches, do they occupy?

Four Conceptual Habitat types within a forest stand
Four Conceptual Habitat types within a forest stand.

I am a “lumper” rather than a “splitter” when it comes to making recommendations for forest wildlife habitat management. So, here is a conceptual (lumped) breakdown into four elements of forest habitat:  Canopy, Stems, Understory and Ground. Each element will have species associated with it, subject to manipulation via habitat modifications.

For example, a Douglas squirrel that lives predominately in the green canopy, gathering cones and storing them in caches, often under down-wood, would use several elements, but is fundamentally linked to the presence of green, seed-bearing canopy. This element is commonly managed. Woodpeckers need stem habitat, specifically standing dead stems, for their nesting habitats. Each element has opportunity in management to benefit target wildlife species.

Look at your stand and consider what could be enhanced: plant some fruiting shrubs, maintain or create some snags, build a brush pile, etc. The options are many!

In the next few issues we will explore each of these habitat layers with some specific recommendations for maintaining and enhancing habitat values on small woodlands.

by Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist
Washington State Department of Natural Resources