How’s your habitat?

Ice, Wind, and Snow in the Forecast? Stay Positive. Not All Bad Weather is Purely Bad for Wildlife
By Levi Horrell, AGFC Private Lands Biologist, West Arkansas
How’s your habitat?
How’s your habitat?
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission

Arkansas-( In the world of wildlife there are two basic needs that stand out from nearly all else, food and cover. Food is what provides the energy an animal needs to continue living its life.

Cover is what can protect an animal from losing its life to predators or harsh weather conditions.

During the winter, Mother Nature often threatens to put the hurt on wildlife. This is the time of the year when the health of every animal is put to the test. Ice, wind and snow are the primary weapons that can spell bad news for not only wildlife, but people and their property as well.
No one wants to lose quality timber or good mast producing trees to storm damage, but when this happens it often has at least somewhat of a silver lining for wildlife habitat.
Storms are a natural way of opening the canopy and allowing more sunlight to the understory. During the growing season, increased sunlight means greater plant growth and the subsequent vegetation can provide an increase in both food and cover for a wide range of wildlife species.
Storms also tend to bring down limbs that provide cover to wildlife. Prey species like quail and rabbits need habitat in which they can escape from coyotes, foxes, hawks and other predators. They also need habitat that can help them maintain a warm body temperature when weather turns cold. Ironically, limbs brought down by one ice storm could end up providing cover that might help some animals survive the next bad episode of winter weather.
When it comes to enduring winter weather, virtually all animals are constantly out in the elements. If you and I go out into weather that is 20 degrees, it might not seem all that different to us from being out in 25 or even 30 degree weather (after all, 32 degrees is still freezing cold!). However, to an animal as small as a quail or even as large as a deer, 20 degrees versus 25 degrees could mean a lot, especially over the course of an entire winter. Spending day after day in cold conditions will cause an animal to burn a lot of energy trying to stay warm. A few degrees colder mean more energy burned and across several months, that extra energy burned can really add up. Although Arkansas does not experience prolonged periods of extreme weather, if the energy expenditure is enough, some critters may eventually succumb to the winter’s icy grip.
Clearly cold weather demands either a great deal of food to offset the energy expended for heat or, more realistically, quality thermal cover for protection. This need for thermal cover during the winter is one reason native grasses (little bluestem, switchgrass, etc.) are better at providing wildlife habitat than other grasses (for instance, fescue and bermudagrass). Native grass species tend to stand more erect and offer a greater degree of vertical structure above the ground which helps to lessen winds and allow animals to not only hold in their heat, but also stay concealed from predators. In addition, managing existing forests through select thinning, planting trees and shrubs, prescribed burning old fields or a combination of these, can improve thermal cover during winter months.
In situations where habitat conditions are inadequate, fewer animals may survive a harsh winter and that in turn will reduce the breeding population the following spring. With a reduced population, the productivity will be lessened and who knows what the summer will bring. If for instance, a significant drought occurs, fewer young that year might survive and suddenly the impact of losing a few animals to the previous cold winter has become even more detrimental to the overall population. With a thought process like this, it is easy to see how a short-lived species like quail can experience a rapid decline in population with just a year or two of bad weather, and how habitat can either contribute negatively or positively to the outcome.
With all that being said, the reality is weather is uncontrollable and habitat is the key to survival and sustaining wildlife from year to year. Sure, ice storms and other severe weather events can have impacts; however, with good wildlife habitat planning and management, impacts may be reduced. When a destructive event like an ice storm happens, all we can do is try to see the good in the bad and perhaps turn it into something positive. As far as wildlife are concerned, an ice storm could translate to improved habitat conditions in the future.