ARE WE LOSING OUR WMAS?
Part III: Managing Maine’s WMAs

By Stephen D. Carpenteri

Can we create more early-successional habitat with an eye on maximum wildlife diversity on our WMAs? Here’s what hunters and other users of our WMAs can do to help.

In researching this series of articles on wildlife management areas in Maine and elsewhere in the East, John Organ, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Wildlife and Fish Management explained the low level of active management being conducted on our WMAs by pointing out that the Pittman-Robertson Act allows not only for the purchase and development of those lands for wild mammals and birds but also for research projects directed at finding solutions for the problems affecting wildlife restoration.

The common refrain among state land managers (those who are charged with the planning and implementation of work under the Pittman-Robertson Act guidelines) is that there is not enough manpower or money to accomplish their goals. Despite the MDIFW’s best efforts, plans and goals, only about 1 percent of our 95,000-plus acres of WMA holdings (or about 55,000 acres that are considered operable) are “managed” (clear-cut, mowed, bush-hogged, etc.) annually. In most years more land is added to the WMA system than is managed, enhanced or improved for early-successional habitat – the saplings, brush, grass and succulents that comprise what’s considered prime habitat for the greatest diversity of wildlife.

Maine’s WMAs presently consist of about 80 percent mature forest with about 20 percent in mowed areas, clear-cuts and sapling growth. When the P-R Act was passed in 1939 the top biologists of the era said that for maximum diversity of habitat and wildlife species there should be a mix of 30 percent mixed saplings, 10 percent slash, 20 percent brushy saplings, 10 percent open meadows and 30 percent mature forest. No state in the East (including Maine) has even one WMA that is at or near this Holy Grail of management goals even though the Pittman-Robertson Act (a tax on guns, ammunition, bows and arrows) has been in effect for nearly 75 years.

There are many reasons why Maine’s hunter-funded WMAs look like mini state forests. In 2010, for example, most of the MDIFW’s resources were used for maintaining 35 miles of boundary lines, 27 miles of road, trail and bridge maintenance plus developing plans, consulting, site evaluations and other administrative duties that, important as they may be, do not provide, produce or create early-successional habitat.

According to John Pratte, the MDIFW’s Wildlife Management Section supervisor, a total of 1,777 acres of habitat management was conducted including managing timber on 1,050 acres, herbaceous seeding on 14 acres, clearing of 27 acres for early-successional habitat, “vegetation control” (i.e., mowing) on 669 acres, planting on 6 acres, apple tree releases on 5 acres and managing for wild turkeys on 6 acres. The total acreage “managed” that year was less than 1 percent of the state’s WMA holdings.

One concern is that the Pittman-Robertson Act has been amended several times and is now too broad in its focus, allowing funding for a wide variety of activities and more administrative requirements than the original Act passed in 1939.

“There is a larger issue that gets at the heart of the problem,” the USFWS’s Organ said. “State fish and wildlife agency personnel at all levels are frustrated because of the demands placed on them and the insufficient resources they have to address them.

“What is needed are systemic changes – changes in governance, cultures, etc., that can lead to broader funding and maybe allowing P-R to be more focused.”

The “culture” issue noted by Organ might best be described as non-paying users interfering with sound habitat management principles and practices. As one state biologist told me, “I conducted an 80-acre selective cut (as recommended by a state forester) and the ‘greenies’ came out of the woodwork, writing letters to the editor and calling the governor’s office. You would have thought I’d committed mass murder!”

Wildlife management areas are not meant to be scenic, open parks or giant tree museums. A properly-managed WMA may look terrible with its brushy cover, saplings, clear-cuts and briars but that is precisely the type of habitat where big and small game species (deer, pheasants, quail, rabbits, woodcock and grouse) plus a multitude of songbirds and other non-game birds and animals thrive. This is what hunters pay for and want to see on their WMAs, not endless miles of mature, same-age forest filled with roads and trails where little wildlife of any kind may be found.

The Pittman-Robertson Act was passed in 1939 to provide funds for continuing habitat management on state WMAs, but for the most part those lands have sat idle these past 70-plus years.

Ryan Robicheau, Maine’s Region B Land Management biologist, said that Maine sportsmen can help save some money and turn our WMA habitat deficit around by working with regional biologists to mow existing meadows, plant beneficial herbaceous bushes and trees, create small openings in timber stands, bush-hog overgrown sapling stands; prune, release and fertilize existing apple trees; install and maintain duck nesting structures.

There is also a need for “custodial” workers who can participate in routine trash pickup, culvert clearing, boundary maintenance and similar projects to free biologists to pursue more meaningful habitat work.

Finally, larger organized groups including correctional facility inmates could be utilized for long-term projects up to and including clear-cutting, bush-hogging and other large-scale habitat improvement activities under the guidance of a state biologist or forester.

Our WMAs are essentially dormant now and have been for decades, but they can be returned to a high level of habitat and species diversity. As John Organ noted, this will require a change in focus, a change in governance and a change in culture.

Are hunters willing to demand that these changes be implemented in order to get the maximum return from their Pittman-Robertson contributions? There are 95,000 acres of land out there that desperately need our immediate attention. One thing is for certain, nibbling away at our WMAs at the present pace will never get the job done.

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


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