What is good habitat? What is bad habitat?

Human preference typically overrides science-based factors in habitat evaluation. All forest management practices have both positive and negative habitat impacts, depending on the wildlife considered.

The term “wildlife habitat” conjures-up different meanings for different people. Some of these meanings contradict each other. Management practices that “improve” habitat will benefit some species but discriminate against others.

It’s usually a bit misleading to hear people mention that a management practice is “good” for wildlife. Such statements offer an opportunity for education, or at least clarification. Any practice is both good and bad, depending on which species of wildlife is considered. What people probably mean is that a management practice might be good for their favorite species. Often, they don’t or aren’t aware of other species’ habitat needs.

Habitat, in an ecological sense, incorporates physical characteristics in the landscape within which a particular species can find basic life cycle requirements such as food, water, and cover (e.g. shelter, nesting, etc.).

Humans tend to qualify the goodness of something by using personal preferences. Sometimes, those preferences are even rooted in science-based knowledge. If the habitat appears to satisfy the needs of a person’s favorite species, the gazer deems the habitat “good.” If the gazer decides something is lacking, the habitat is “bad.”

In a certain sense, there is no such thing as “bad” habitat. As an extreme example, even a parking lot has attributes favorable to some species. If you’re a gull, that parking lot has plenty of tidbits to glean from trash that have been left behind by shoppers. If gulls were the only species of interest, might parking lots be considered critical habitat?

So what does this mean when considering vegetation and wildlife?

Ecologically, each vegetation type has a range of natural attributes. A type with a full set of attributes would be considered high-quality habitat. A habitat progressively loses functionality with the absence or reduction of each natural attribute. For example, a northern hardwood forest might be missing den trees, standing snags or large dead trees on the ground. That forest doesn’t possess the full range of attributes; therefore, even as it remains a bountiful resource, it is not as high in quality, in an ecological sense, as a similar forest that does have the full range.

The goals of a forest owner might not include all the natural attributes of a forest type. Continuing with the northern hardwood example, an owner may wish to manage for maximum tree quality and monetary value. In the process, those den trees, standing snags, and large dead-and-down trees may not have much importance to the owner. The forest continues to possess most habitat attributes but the loss of some ecological richness will reduce the potential for wildlife species. In this way, an owner may unintentionally lessen the aesthetic appeal of their woodland.

Similarly, folks will often evaluate habitat through the lens of a favorite wildlife species, such as white-tailed deer. “Good” habitat is often gauged by seeing lots of deer. “Bad” habitat doesn’t have as many deer. The habitat may be lacking high-quality components and may not be sustainable, nevertheless it will be deemed good if deer can be easily seen.

Conversely, good deer habitat, from an ecological perspective, will likely be more diverse and may have more deer than what can be easily seen, even when a fair-sized deer population exists. To the casual observer, if you can’t see them they’re not there. But good deer habitat will provide enough cover so that deer aren’t so easily seen.

The manner in which we manage, or don’t manage, forest habitats and larger landscapes often has more to do with what we want to see or what we think we see, and less about measurable ecological functions. Sometimes, conflicts arise between forest users with different viewpoints. Occasionally, those conflicts carry considerable political charge and significant economic consequences.

 In the end, it might be helpful to remember that all habitat has value and all habitat will naturally change with time. Obtaining professional wildlife management advice will help owners better understand some of the complexity and, hopefully, lead to more satisfying ownership benefits.