Can Forest Management Maintain the Extent of Shrubland Habitat in Rhode Island?

The University of Rhode Island is strengthening forestry/wildlife outreach programs by addressing the following questions:

  • How much shrubland habitat currently exists in Rhode Island?
  • Is the extent of shrubland stable or decreasing?
  • What impact is forest management having on maintaining shrubland habitat?

Conserving shrubland habitat in Rhode Island is an important priority. The extent of shrubland habitat decreased during the past century due to maturation of forests on abandoned agriculture land and reduction in forest disturbances which create shrubland habitat, such as logging and forest fires. The loss of shrubland habitat is linked to population declines for many wildlife species. Forest management offers the greatest opportunity to maintain populations of shrubland specialists, and many conservation agencies are clearcutting blocks of forest to create new areas of shrubland habitat.

The current study reviewed eight land use/land cover studies, created new databases of the spatial distribution of shrublands and clearcuts in Rhode Island, and assessed whether current forest management operations are sufficient to sustain the current area of shrubland habitat in conjunction with other sources of loss and gain of shrubland.

What did we learn about shrubland habitat?
  • None of the recent land use studies provides a reliable estimate of the extent of shrubland habitat due to difficulty in detecting the small patches of shrubland prevalent in Rhode Island.
  • We estimate that shrubland covers 3.3% of the land area of the state, with the lowest coverage in non-coastal upland areas.
  • The extent of upland shrubland in non-coastal areas is decreasing by at least 1.5% per year.
What did we learn about forest management?
  • 1,500 acres of forest were clearcut between 1997 and 2003, excluding land that was cleared for construction.
  • Half of the clearcuts produced shrubland habitat by 2008 – the others were converted to pasture or other non-forest land use.
  • 98% of the clearcuts producing shrubland were located in non-coastal upland areas.
  • Private landowners created more shrubland by clearcutting than conservation agencies.
  • The average clearcut size (3 acres) was large enough to provide viable habitat for shrubland birds. However few clearcuts met the 25 acre requirement of New England cottontails.
What do we recommend?
  • The area of clearcuts should be tripled in non-coastal upland areas to maintain the existing extent of shrubland habitat.
  • The target for increased clearcutting should initially be achieved on conservation properties. This would require harvesting 0.3% of the conservation forests each year. Over time, this target can be met largely by private landowners, who are already implementing most forest management in the state.
  • An advisory committee should be established to encourage the expansion of forest management activities on conservation land. The advisory committee should include representation of state and federal agencies, environmental organizations, land trusts and water boards.
  • Outreach programs should be strengthened to encourage greater involvement of private landowners in creating shrubland habitat, building on the success of the Rhode Island Coverts Program.
  • Private landowners should be encouraged to create small clearcuts of at least 1.5 acres, which provide habitat for most shrubland birds.
  • Clearcuts should be located near existing shrublands, powerline rights of way, or wetland forests where possible, as this connectivity will increase the potential for small clearcuts to meet the needs of area-sensitive species.
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