If we want to see wildlife in our National Forests then we must abandon the preservationist mentality and realize that, as quality habitat improves, the carrying capacity of the land improves and wildlife species thrive.
By Don Mallicoat – We have a Korean persimmon tree in our front yard that we planted several years ago. It finally started bearing fruit this year; a lot of it. To the point the branches are sagging. Before fruit began to ripen it started to drop raw permissions on the ground, frustrating my wife who has been looking forward to the delicious fruit. She questioned why it’s happening. My response: the tree has exceeded its carrying capacity and is dropping some of the fruit to ensure some of it survives to maturity. I don’t know if that’s true, but it reminded me of a wildlife habitat concept I’ve mentioned before, carrying capacity.
So what is carrying capacity? It means that any given piece of land can only support a given number of a wildlife species based on the habitat it provides. As an example, if there is no water source on the land there will be very little wildlife. Same for food. Just like us, deer, turkey, bear, grouse and other wildlife need those things to survive. They also need protective cover to escape predators and raise their young in the spring and summer. Again, if those elements are not there wildlife populations will be low.
The other day when I went down to the kennel to feed Ben there was a group of deer in the woods behind the house, maybe 8 – 10. That number was 5 – 6 a couple of years ago. That’s does. Last winter I saw three bucks back there. A couple of weeks ago my wife called me one morning to report a yearling bear in a tree about 20 yards from our back door. Of course we also have squirrel, raccoon, foxes, and I’ve seen at least one coyote.
Why is carrying capacity important and why do I write about it? We are seeing more wildlife move into suburban areas. Deer in my back yard. Asheville is working with the WRC on a bear tagging program to track bears living within the metro area. Pictures of turkey pecking at scattered seed on the ground under a birdfeeder downtown. And unfortunately, the missing pet signs indicative of coyotes in a suburban neighborhood. The obvious question is: With so much forest, most of it public land, surrounding our housing areas why are they living in suburban areas? The answer is lack of carrying capacity.
Our public land does not provide the mosaic of varying forests age that meet the year round needs of wildlife. Most wildlife does not use one type of forest habitat all the time. Seasonal changes bring about different needs for food and shelter. Our public forests are way out of balance to provide that. In a recent meeting for the Pisgah/Nantahala strategic plan an alarming statistic jumped out at me. Did you know that over 90 percent of the forest is 70 years old or older? That imbalance reduces carrying capacity.
So with a reduced carrying capacity in our National Forests, wildlife must move to survive. And that’s what brings them to our neighborhoods. Want evidence? Several months ago the WRC released statistics on the 2016-17 deer harvest. The combined total harvest on over 1 million acres of our National Forest in the mountains was only 1,041 deer. In Madison County along during the same period, the private land harvest was 1,091. So we must question why so few deer are taken on public land. The answer is carrying capacity translated to lack of habitat.
I use deer as an example but the same applies to black bear and my beloved ruffed grouse. Yeah, you can find some grouse on public land. But you might just as much get skunked. NC grouse hunter survey data last year showed the average hunter flew no birds on one of three trips taken. Most successful grouse hunters find their birds on private land that provides the habitat grouse need. Carrying capacity.
This is why hunters and true conservationists are trying to make the case for active management of our National Forests. Except for small pockets, it is a wildlife desert. There are very few seasonal food sources and protective cover is scarce for both escaping predators and protecting young. If we want to see wildlife in our National Forests then we must abandon the preservationist mentality and realize that as quality habitat improves the carrying capacity of the land improves and wildlife species thrive.