Have We Lost Our WMAs?
Part I: What Is A WMA?

By Stephen D. Carpenteri

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on Wildlife Management Areas by Journal writer Steve Carpenteri. In his report, Steve seeks to examine the question of whether our Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in the northeast are, indeed, being managed for wildlife habitat, as was intended.

According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and wildlife there currently are 61 wildlife management areas in the state totaling 106,000 acres. These WMAs range in size from 111 acres to 6,838 acres and include all 16 Maine counties. These WMAs were established to provide for continued public use including hunting, fishing and trapping; hiking and walking; biking, cross-country skiing, berry picking, leaf peeping, horseback riding, snowmobiling and ATV riding; boating and canoeing, cemetery visiting, training hunting dogs and wildlife watching.

What is a WMA? Think of these properties as designated “wildlife factories.” The intent of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which was passed in 1939, was to create wild areas in each state featuring a maximum diversity of wildlife species and habitat types – a garden for wildlife. At that time a formula for maximum wildlife yield was created by Aldo Leopold (considered to be the grandfather of modern wildlife management) and other experts who agreed (and proved) that a habitat mix of 30 percent mixed saplings, 10 percent slash, 20 percent brushy saplings, 30 percent mature forest and 10 percent open meadows would provide a wide diversity of habitat for the widest variety of wildlife including the most popular game species (small game, upland birds, big game and waterfowl) as well as non-game species (rodents, song birds, raptors and other non-hunted species). Managed for maximum diversity, any state’s WMAs would provide excellent hunting, fishing and wildlife watching opportunities in perpetuity.

Photo caption: Nearly every WMA in the East consists primarily of same-aged mature forest with extremely limited species diversity.

The purchase, maintenance and management of these lands are paid for primarily by funds derived from the Pittman-Robertson Act, a federal law which distributes money to the states based on hunting and fishing license sales and a tax on guns and ammunition, bows and arrows. In other words, despite the wide range of multiple uses allowed on these properties only hunters are paying for the purchase, maintenance and administration of these lands.

The first Pittman-Robertson payments were distributed to state wildlife agencies in 1939 (Maine received $11,031 that year). Each state has received its share of P-R funding annually ever since. In 2010, for example, Maine received $4.5 million as its share of the P-R disbursement.

The Pittman-Robertson Act was intended to provide funding to allow state land managers to conduct habitat manipulation projects designed to create new or maintain established wildlife habitat with “maximum diversity” in mind. Most state WMAs acquired throughout the country since the mid-1900s consisted of abandoned farms, old mines, clear-cuts and “junk lands” where development opportunities were limited or the soil quality was poor. Most WMAs in the East border or include swamps, steep mountainsides, burned-over lands or other difficult terrain. During the period from 1939 to the 1960s these lands provided great hunting, fishing and trapping as they grew from grasslands, wetlands and sapling-stage habitat into mature forest. In some states these WMAs provided such ideal habitat for wildlife that hunters could find pheasants, quail, rabbits, grouse, woodcock, rabbits and squirrels in abundance; plus deer, bear and innumerable furbearers. At one point most WMAs consisted of 80 percent meadows, open brush and “edge cover” bordering small stands of mature forest – all of which is ideal habitat for a wide variety of species.

As we enter 2012, however, every WMA in the East consists primarily (70 to 80 percent) of mature woodland, a collection of mini state forests with relatively small percentages of mowed fields and other openings – nothing like the 30-10-20-30-10 maximum diversity formula suggested by Leopold. For decades, hunters have lamented the lack of game and upland birds on state WMAs due to this excess of forested cover. Hunters have long complained that deer and other game species are more numerous on other, bordering private properties that in many cases have more habitat diversity than the neighboring “wildlife management area.” Unfortunately, public hunting is often not allowed on those bordering private lands. Because of this, there has been a definite shift in hunter interest from state-owned WMAs to private lands, leases, clubs and pay-to-hunt operations because the habitat on those areas appears to be better managed for wild game species.

In every state that purchases and manages its WMAs using hunter-generated P-R funding the sum total of actual hands-on, chainsaws in the woods habitat management is less than 1 percent annually. Even in Pennsylvania, which has one of the best Land Management divisions in the U.S., actual habitat manipulation comes to 15,000 acres per year. That sounds like a lot except that the Keystone State has more than 1.5 million acres in State Game Lands holdings, which means that 99 percent of those public hunting lands stand idle each year. The situation is the same in New York, Georgia, Connecticut and Ohio, where some land managers admit that they have “given up” on trying to maintain their WMAs at maximum habitat diversity due to complicated funding and manpower issues.

There are very good reasons why our state wildlife management areas, most of which consist of endless miles of same-age mature forest, are empty of wildlife other than squirrels, turkeys and boreal songbirds. Next month we’ll take a closer look at Maine’s Land Management Program, how our WMAs are being managed and what biologists are doing with their P-R funds.

Steve Carpenteri has hunted on and observed the changes in wildlife management areas for over 50 years.

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