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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

Early-Successional Forest and Shrub Habitat 


                 Young trees and shrubs, often occupying recently disturbed sites and areas such as abandoned farm fields, provide unique and important habitat for many wildlife. Some of the tree and shrub species that colonize abandoned agricultural land and disturbed sites include grey birch, dogwood, aspen species, cherry, willow, and alder. Due to the propensity of these plant species to quickly colonize disturbed sites, they are often referred to as 'pioneer species.' These habitats occur throughout the state in various forms in wet conditions, dry conditions, and at mid-elevation and low elevation. These are not habitats typical of high elevation, at least not as defined by the species discussed here.   



Many species of wildlife require early-successional forest and shrub habitat. Popular species such as ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and New England Cottontail require this habitat for many of their annual life needs. Songbirds such as the golden-winged warbler nest only in this sort of habitat and, in fact, are at risk of population declines due to the loss of such habitat. 

                New England in general, and Vermont specifically, has realized a drastic decline of early-successional forest and shrub habitat. This loss is due largely to development and natural forest succession. Traditionally, this habitat was created by a variety of natural disturbances such as fire, floods, and wind, including hurricanes. In addition, human activities on the land, such as agriculture and timber production, created early-successional forest habitat. Today, with the chronic loss of agriculture, declining land ownership by forest products industries, and increased residential development of those same lands, opportunities for perpetuating these habitats is diminished. As a result, those species of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles that require this habitat to survive are generally declining in the Northeast region (Litviatus, 1999). 

                In addition, these habitats support species such as ruffed grouse that have long been the passion of Vermont and New England upland game hunters. These habitats serve as sources for the production of such species as the American woodcock, whose populations continue to decline precipitously. Populations of American woodcock, a fascinating bird species unique to these habitats, are continuing to decline solely because of the loss of this habitat to development primarily, and forest succession secondarily.    


Conservation Goals

         It's important to consider several factors when deciding where and how to conserve and perpetuate early-successional forest and shrub habitat. Some areas of the state offer greater opportunities to benefit the species that require this sort of habitat than others. The Champlain Valley , for instance, is frequented more than the Northern Green Mountains region by the American woodcock and golden-winged warbler. That is not to say that this habitat is not found in the Northern Green Mountains; rather, it is to point out that a greater abundance of early successional forest and shrub habitat in the lower elevation zones of Vermont provides greater value to the species that most require it. There are exceptions to this generalization. For example, Bicknell's thrush prefers the low density of spruce-fir forests of the higher elevations, which are often disturbed by winds and ice damage. Many widespread species, such as black bear and deer, benefit from the diversity of soft mast (berries) plants and browse that is made available from early successional habitat. 

                A planning group might adopt the following goals to conserve early-successional forest and shrub habitat. 

1.        Maintain early-successional forest and shrub habitat and, where appropriate, increase the acreage of this habitat within the town or area of interest. Be sure to consult with a wildlife habitat expert before deciding to promote the development of new early-successional forest habitat since some areas or sites may not be compatible or appropriate for the types of disturbance or management actions required to establish those habitats. 

2.        Encourage management of existing early successional forest and shrub habitat in a manner compatible with the nesting, breeding, and brood rearing requirements of species that are declining, such as American woodcock. This species may serve as a useful surrogate for the habitat requirements of other early successional habitat dependant wildlife.  


Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources  

                See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

         Vermont Center for Geographic Information The Center has land use/land cover GIS data.

        Agency of Natural Resources: This agency maintains information on early-successional habitat occurrence on state land for most, but not all, state-owned parcels.

         Vermont Mapping Program The Vermont Department of Taxes administers this program and supplies each town (by law) with two sets of 1:5000 scale orthophoto printouts for its geographic area. They also sell digital format orthophotos (on CD-ROM) and will do custom printouts of orthophotos (and some spatial data layers) at other scales for a fee.

         U.S. Forest Service: This agency maintains data, maps, and information on the distribution of forest cover types, including early-successional forest, throughout the state and region.  

Conservation Strategies

Some strategies presented in other element sections may apply to the conservation and management of early-successional forest habitat. Once information on early-successional forest and shrub habitat has been collected, it is possible to develop specific Conservation Strategies to help achieve those goals related to this habitat. Some examples of strategies related to each goal follow. 


1. Goal: Maintain early-successional forest and shrub habitat and, where appropriate, increase the acreage of this habitat within the town or area of interest.  


        a. Emphasize the importance of conserving, managing and perpetuating these habitats in a town plan or other planning document. Sample Language: Early-successional forest and shrub habitat - important to the survival of many species of wildlife as well as related public interests - is declining statewide. The conservation, protection, management and, where appropriate, restoration of these habitats will be a priority.  

        b. Identify areas of beaver activity or those with high potential for beaver activity, and ensure the continuation of beaver-related landscape dynamics. Conserve beaver-influenced landscapes by encouraging residents and road crews to consider alternatives to dam removal. 

        c. Ensure that these sorts of habitats are represented in at least some of the land conservation or acquisition actions. Develop management and conservation plans for conserved lands, public or private, that support the protection, conservation, management and, where appropriate, creation of these habitats. 


2. Goal: Encourage management of existing early-successional forest and shrub habitat in a manner compatible with the nesting, breeding, and brood rearing requirements of the American woodcock. This species may serve as a useful surrogate for the habitat requirements of other early-successional habitat dependant wildlife.  


        a. Encourage agricultural and forest products economies by providing tax incentives or other incentives for large landowners to retain ownership and management of those lands. 

b. Encourage large landowners to enroll in the current use program administered by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. This program requires that a qualified professional develop a forest management plan. The program can be a useful tool for incorporating the actions required to perpetuate this sort of habitat and the species that rely upon it.  


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