Turning Unproductive Land Into Prime Habitat

Sponsored by: Heartland Wildlife Institute & Spypoint Camera Systems

In our management advantage column we discuss a variety of ways to increase the value of your land through habitat improvement practices. In this article we are going to discuss economical ways to turn your most unproductive land into prime habitat for wildlife and cattle.

Most of the land we hunt on has areas that are not valuable for hunting or raising livestock. These areas are called fallow lands, which are typically old fields that have been taken over by invasive plant species like honey mesquite, prickly pear cactus or even re-growth oak thickets that have very little value to anything.  These lands are wastelands to the wildlife manager. By reclaiming these lands you can transform it back into diversified land that will attract and hold a variety of game animals and domestic stock.

Restoring old fields taken over by Mesquites and reseeding with native grass and forbs is a good practice.

This will be a multi part series of articles in which we will discuss ways to partner with the organization that can provide cost sharing assistance to help you pay for these restoration or habitat improvement projects, as well as looking in detail at methods to transform unproductive land into prime habitat.

The organization that I have a lot of respect for and have jointly partnered on several projects is the NRCS. The Natural Resource Conservation Service is an agency within the United States Government Department of Agriculture that is designed to work with landowners through conservation planning and assistance to benefit the soil, water, air, plants and animals for productive lands and healthy ecosystems. They have many programs that are designed for reducing soil erosion, enhancing water supplies, improving water quality and increasing wildlife habitat. I would encourage you to research and work with your local NRCS office to determine the best program for you needs. These programs can be found at: www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs

The two programs that I will focus on these articles are Environmental Quality Incentive program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP). Each year your local NRCS office will work with local landowners and determine the highest priority items needed for the county the upcoming year and contracts will be weighed against these priorities. One year water establishment might rank as a high priority and another year brush clearing or cross fencing might carry more weight. WHIP is a wildlife incentive program established for conservation minded landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on agriculture land, nonindustrial private forest land and tribal land. WHIP focuses on projects to improve wetlands, quail habitat and other wildlife ecosystem improvements.

This Kubota tractor played an important part in our restoration projects, for seeding and general work.

It is best to go meet your local office and discuss your long term plan for improving your land and see if your goals align with priority items of the NRCS. If so, it might make sense to continue discussions and assistance from the department. I have had a very positive experience with my local NRCS office which has consisted of strategizing about ways to improve my property, field assessments to determine what types of browse, forbs and the quality and quantity of water sources that are present on my land, as well as assistance in developing a long term plan to improve the overall habitat and reach my long term goals. The NRCS has engineered spillways and ponds and partnered in cost share projects to help me accomplish my goals through financial assistance.

NRCS programs provide financial assistance payments to eligible producers based on a portion of the average cost associated with the practice implementation. Information about how to apply for assistance through these programs is available online or can be obtained through your local NRCS office. Applications are accepted on a continuous basis, although there are cut-off deadline dates for evaluation and ranking eligible applications. I recommend visiting your local office to discuss your goals and see if it makes sense to partner on any of these projects.

When I first met my local office, Wynne Whitworth told me the bottom line is this: “If you are going to do these projects anyways, it is a good deal to work with the NRCS and share in the cost sharing model”. After two different projects with the NRCS, Wynne was exactly right.  I have cleared and restored old fields that were eroding and being invaded with mesquites, and turned them into very productive perennial fields that now consist of quality native grasses and forb mixtures, developed additional water sources and cleared out re-growth oak and green briar thickets that were so thick, nothing could walk through them. The end result has been a very diversified and productive ranch, with year around water sources every 80 acres, a good mixture of cover and browse consisting of Oaks, wild plum, Hackberry, elms, perennial native grass and forb fields that consist of native bunch grasses and forbs such as Illinois bundleflower, Maximillian sunflower, Englemanndaisy, Awnless Bush Sunflower and many others.

Wynne Whitworth and a summer intern came out to insure the success of the projects.

Wynne Whitworth has always told me this is a long term plan and she is right. Even though it seems like yesterday, I am 6 years into my long term plan and the results are speaking for themselves. Today, you would not recognize the land I purchased 7 years ago that had been overgrazed for decades, contained wasteland fields that were eroding and looked like they never would support any cattle or wildlife and had very few quality water sources.

I am still working the plan and will be for years to come, but am very encouraged by the results I am seeing so far. The land holds rain better than ever, my native grass and forb fields are thriving and the overall habitat improvements are having lasting effects on the wildlife that reside on my ranch.

Landownership is an exciting and rewarding venture that your whole family can benefit from. By developing and working a habitat improvement plan, you will do great things for the land and wildlife, have memorable experiences with family members and friends and insure your investment in rural real estate will be rewarding both financially and personally.

In upcoming articles we will explore various projects like land sculpting to increase diversification, improving water supplies and overall habitat improvement projects that will help you make your land more productive.

Until then, get your motion cameras in the field and keep those shooting skills sharp – hunting season is right around the corner.