The Forests of North Pikes Creek

aspenNorthern Wisconsin’s forests are characterized by mixed deciduous-coniferous forests. Based on the classification system developed by the USFS to describe forest systems, the forest communities represented at the North Pikes Creek Wetlands are similar to much of northern Wisconsin, and include aspen/birch, lowland conifer, and lowland hardwood forest types. A forest cover type inventory, conducted by a retired USFS forester, determined that the headwaters wetlands are dominated by aspen, followed by swamp hardwoods and a mixture of swamp hardwood and conifers, and swamp conifers, with the remainder in shrubby habitat surrounding the creek, marsh land, and beaver ponds.

Aspen: A majority of the aspen stands in the North Pikes Creek headwaters were regenerated 25 years ago. While dominated by aspen, these stands include minor components of other species including black ash, balsam fir, white spruce, and some maple.

Swamp hardwoods/swamp conifer/mixed swamp conifer‐hardwoods: These wetland stands are in the 80+ year old range. Swamp hardwood stands are dominated by black ash and aspen, with a few maple and cedar trees. Several swamp conifer stands, relicts from the past, are dominated by white cedar, white spruce, and balsam fir, with some black ash, aspen and paper birch. The mixed stands are dominated by hardwood tree species with some conifers along the creek, which is flooded in the spring, and with hardwoods further away from the creek in drier soil.

Forests are Dynamic

conifer along creekForests are dynamic and every forest is in a state of change at all times. Forests have historically been altered in structure and composition due to natural disturbances- mostly large scale forest fires- but also windstorms, insect outbreaks, fungi, pathogens and animal disturbances. When settlers arrived in Wisconsin, they manipulated their environment by clearing land for farming, home sites, cities, and highways, engaged in fire and insect infestation suppression, and introduced pollution and invasive species. These recent disturbances have, in some cases, led to forest fragmentation, loss of wildlife habitat, and interruption of traditional wildlife corridors.

You’ve probably heard well-meaning but ill-informed folks say, “Leave nature alone, and let it do what it does best.” Scott Walter, former WDNR Upland Wildlife Ecologist and current Ruffed Grouse Society Regional Wildlife Biologist, states that “Unfortunately, passion uninformed by science can…promote ineffective management responses.” When asked if land managers should use a forests' pre-cutover state as a guide for restoration, or if another date was preferable, Walter replied that there is no arbitrary date one should try to replicate, and that healthy forests are dynamic and constantly changing.  He further observed that a forest at a particular chronological date is not intrinsically “better” than the same forest at a different point in time-  an 1850’s forest is not necessarily better than a 1450’s or 1950’s forest. Walter urged land planners, managers, foresters and property owners to evaluate what they have today and apply best scientific management practices to ensure habitat optimization. Walter also cautioned that global warming should be taken into consideration during planning as some species, such as white cedar, tamarack, and balsam fir are projected to suffer significant declines, or possible extirpation, in northern Wisconsin in the next 50 years.

Most people know that wildlife needs grasslands, wetlands, and mature forests, but it is less well-known that young forest is another essential habitat for Wisconsin’s species – in fact, 53 species of Wisconsin wildlife are reliant on young forests. The amount of young forest in our state has dwindled significantly over the past century. To keep forests healthy, and to provide homes for wildlife, a balanced mosaic of forest age classes is necessary for optimal habitat. To maintain this diversity of forest structures- young, old and in between- active management is needed.

Young Forests are for the Birds

Golden-winged WarblerWhen scientists began tracking birds with radio transmitter tags, they discovered that young forest species, such as the Golden-winged warbler, a species of greatest conservation need, also used mature forests during different parts of the day and during various stages of their life cycle. Conversely, birds thought to use mature forests exclusively, such as the Veery and Swainson’s thrush, were found to be using young forest habitat also, and preferred it during the post-fledging period. This research has important implications for forest managers and conservationists, who must meet the challenge of providing enough young forest for wildlife. Both interior forest-dependent and young forest-dependent species are declining, largely in part to the decline of young forest. Scientific management of forests today must focus on providing mixed age classes of forests in the landscape, which will provide a balanced combination of young, old and edge habitats to benefit all our breeding birds.

The hundred acres of upland aspen stands at North Pikes Creek Wetlands, present an opportunity to create early successional forest habitat as part of an overall plan to provide mixed age class stands in close proximity, for breeding and migrating birds. The value of owning the forest is the ability to manage it for a balanced mosaic of forest age classes to benefit birds. Early successional forest is useful for breeding birds when it is between 0 and 15 years from regeneration. When North Pikes Creek's aspen forests “age-out”, they become a “dead zone,” restricting birds that need young forest to a small amount of edge habitat along the creek and the beaver ponds. The wetlands complex is a portion of a well-used migratory corridor that cuts across the Bayfield Peninsula, and offers a full-service stopover site for migratory birds. However, its value as a breeding site continues to diminish with each season as early successional forest matures. We must now turn our focus on meeting the challenge of providing enough young forest- as part of a balanced mosaic of forest age classes-  for the birds.

To reverse this unhealthy trend, and to optimize this forest habitat for the maximum number and variety of birds and other wildlife, requires the thoughtful intervention of enlightened forest managers employing best management practices.

The Friends, therefore, endorse the creation and maintenance of a mosaic of forest age classes at North Pikes Creek to provide optimum habitat for a wide range of Wisconsin’s birds and other wildlife species, and to use the scientifically-managed North Pikes Creek Wetland forests to demonstrate optimal, state-of-the-art, early successional forest habitat management practices for the educational benefit of both private landowners and public land stewards.

To keep the land healthy, we need a balance of different habitats. As we have come to understand the value of wetlands, we’ve stopped draining them and even begun restoring them. We've protected thousands of acres of older forest, benefiting the animals that live there. Now we must meet the challenge of providing enough young forest for wildlife.
~ The Young Forest Project