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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

Mast Stands    


                 'Mast' is a term commonly used by foresters and wildlife biologists to describe the seeds of shrubs and trees that are eaten by wildlife. 'Hard mast' refers to nuts (especially those of beech and oaks), whereas 'soft mast' refers to berries of a variety of species. Hard mast is generally acknowledged as an important wildlife food source. In Vermont , 171 species are known to use beech or oak stands as habitat (DeGraaf et al., 1992) including 16 amphibian, 9 reptile, 102 bird, and 44 mammal species. These include species on federal and state endangered/threatened species lists, permanent residents, and migratory birds. These mast stands can occur as discrete stands or patches on the landscape and can be delineated as such (similar to delineating a wetland or deer wintering area). 

                Beech stands representing necessary black bear habitat are defined as those stands that exhibit bear scarring made within the past 10 years and include at least 15 to 25 scarred beech trees within a stand. Oak stands serving as necessary black bear habitat are those areas that exhibit bear scarring and include at least 15 to 25 oak trees within a stand. Smaller mast stands, however, may also be significant for wildlife and worth considering in local planning.   



                 The reliance of black bear on hard mast has become so well established that the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department considers areas of beech or oak with a history of bear feeding use to be necessary wildlife habitat as defined by Act 250. A number of studies have documented the relationship between hard mast and bear nutrition. Elowe and Rogers (1989) state that the availability of hard mast in the fall affects the minimum reproductive age of bears, productivity rates, and cub survival. The authors also reported that female bears exhibit reproductive 'skips' after poor mast years and that fall weight gains were keyed to mast availability. Simply put, these stands of beech and oak used by black bear are absolutely essential for the survival and reproduction of this species in Vermont !  

                Mast stands are valuable to a variety of other wildlife and may be irreplaceable on a regional basis. Similar to deer winter habitat and wetlands, significant mast stands are discrete habitat features on the landscape that can be delineated and represented as a polygon on a map. Although American beech, for example, is a common tree species associated with Northern Hardwood Forest natural communities, concentrated stands of beech that are used by black bears are not common; they represent a small fraction of the overall forested landscape of the state, hence their significance for conservation planning. 

                Development within the boundaries of the beech/oak stand obviously directly affects the productivity and bear use of the stand, but even development near a mast stand can diminish the function and use of this habitat. How near a development can be to a mast stand without affecting it depends on topography, vegetative cover, and the nature of the development. This must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by an experienced wildlife biologist.


Conservation Goals

        A town or other planning group might adopt goals like these for the conservation of mast stands. 

1.        Maintain and protect the functional integrity of all mast stands in the town or area of interest. 

2.        Increase the number of acres of mast stand habitat that are under long-term stewardship or conserved in the town or area of interest.   


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 Fish and Wildlife Department: The Department maintains a GIS database of previously mapped mast stands that have been demonstrated to be of outstanding value to wildlife. These are included on the Department's Significant Habitat Maps, which are available from the VWFD district offices and town and regional planning commissions.

         Local hunters, wildlife watchers, and landowners: These sports people spend a lot of time in the forest and are often one of the best sources of information on mast stands.   

Mast Stands Mast Stands and Core Forest

Interpreting the Information  

                Additional areas are added to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department database as they are discovered. Not every mast stand meets the qualifications for listing and mapping as an important mast stand, and not all important mast stands have been discovered and mapped. As previously unidentified mast stands are located, a Department wildlife biologist should be notified and requested to visit the site to confirm the habitat and verify its significance. (Refer to Resources for contact information)  

Conservation Strategies

         Once information has been gathered about mast stands, you can develop specific conservation strategies

to help achieve your goals. Examples of strategies for each goal are presented below. 


1. Goal: Maintain and protect the functional integrity of all mast stands in the town or area of interest.  


        a. Locate existing mast stands throughout the town using GIS, paper maps, and other wildlife-use data. Trained professionals can also help you evaluate the extent to which unmapped mast stands exist in the area of interest. Target these mast stands in open space planning and land acquisition programs. Give higher priority to those mast stands that are associated with other natural heritage elements such as contiguous forests and connecting lands. 

        b. Adopt the following language for your town plan: Sample Language: Mast stands that have been shown to be important to black bear and other wildlife should be protected from development and other uses and activities that threaten the ability of this habitat to support wildlife. Commercial, residential, and industrial development, should be discouraged within the mapped mast stands.6  

        c. Inform landowners of the locations of mast stands on their property, the habitat needs of the associated wildlife, and how they can conserve these stands to keep them functioning as important wildlife habitat. Develop a stewardship program to help landowners manage mast stands and provide them with information about organizations aimed at assisting them with managing their forests for wildlife habitat. Such organizations include COVERTS, a non-profit program that provides technical assistance to private landowners interested in wildlife habitat improvement, and Vermont Family Forests . (See Resources) 

        d. Adopt the following zoning/subdivision regulation: Sample Language: Commercial, residential, and industrial development will not be allowed within the bounds of a mast stand as shown on the town's wildlife habitat map.  

        e. Target mast stands in open space planning and land acquisition programs. Give higher priority to those mast stands that are associated with other natural heritage elements, such as contiguous forests and connecting lands. 

        f. Allow for planned unit developments (PUDs) in town zoning and/or subdivision regulations as an alternative to conventional subdivisions, and require or provide incentives for PUD designs that cluster development away from significant mast stands. PUD approvals can be conditioned with protection for mast stands by means of language required in the development's covenants or a conservation easement. 

        g. Work with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to determine a suitable buffer width around each known mast stand. In general, these buffers should be at least one-quarter mile and may be as wide as one-half mile, depending on the size and quality of the stand, as well as the characteristics of the surrounding landscape. 


2. Goal: Increase the number of acres of mast stand habitat that is under longterm stewardship or conserved in the town or area of interest.  


        a. Offer density bonuses to subdivision developments that protect and properly manage mast stands by means of conservation easements. (Refer to riparian strategies, 2d for sample zoning regulation language). 

        b. Identify interested landowners in the town or area of interest who own or control property that supports mast stand habitat. Work with those landowners/ managers to encourage and assist them in developing mast stand management and improvement plans. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department offers information and advice for developing such plans. 

        c. This is the same as 1c above. Target the largest, highest quality mast stands, particularly those that overlap with other natural heritage elements, for land acquisition or conservation easements.  



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