Managing Habitat at Mt. Nebo WMA....Making Forests Work for Wildlife

by Rick Latshaw and Peter Jayne

ublic lands managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) generally fall into one of three broad categories: state parks, state forests or wildlife management areas (WMA). Though it may seem these designations are interchangeable, these properties are in fact managed to meet different goals. The recently updated mission statement for wildlife management areas succinctly describes the purpose these properties are intended to serve: to conserve and enhance diverse wildlife populations and associated habitats while providing for public enjoyment of the state's wildlife resources through hunting and other wildlife-dependent recreation.

Mt. Nebo Wildlife Management Area is one of 41 WMAs around the state and is the only one located in Garrett County. This 1,800-acre area consists mostly of forest habitat with a significant amount of wetland and wetland shrub habitat picture of a forestand lesser amounts of upland or open, early-succession habitats. Of the 528 vertebrate species documented to occur in Maryland, 236 may be found at Mt. Nebo. The WMA is located along MD Route 219, midway between the town of Oakland and Deep Creek Lake.

It has been said, "Wildlife management isn't brain surgery. It is much more complicated than that!" This concept becomes evident as one tries to understand the various ecological communities, the intricate ebb and flow of resources, and the changing effects of time on the habitats for each of these 236 species. Each species has its own requisites of food, cover, water and space and often relies on different habitats for feeding, sleeping and breeding. To further complicate things, these habitats may be specific to seasons of the year or affected by climate and weather patterns.

A Balance of Habitats
One of the ironic aspects of wildlife management is that changes made to any given habitat will benefit some species while, at the same time, negatively impact others. Each acre cannot be all things to all wildlife. The key to managing an area like Mt. Nebo WMA is to maintain a balance of habitats appropriate for the species present and the conditions influencing the areas, such as climate, topography, soils and the ecology of the surrounding landscape. And just as the species have different needs, biologists have different opinions on the matter. If five biologists are asked what is "best," one may get several different answers depending on their goals for the area.

The one common denominator that most will agree upon is that the biggest threat to wildlife populations is loss of habitat. The alarming rate of habitat loss to development is easily observable almost anywhere in Maryland. Locally, the development surrounding the popular vacation spot of Deep Creek Lake has changed the immediate area dramatically. This is yet another example of how changing an area can benefit some species (for example, the many aquatic resources that benefit from the lake) while impacting others in a negative manner.

Species you might find at
Mt. Nebo WMA:

Black Bear Star-nosed mole
Southern flying squirrel
Gray fox Coyote
Otter Bobcat Fisher
Mink Long-tailed weasel
Water Snake Rattlesnake
Two-lined salamander
Eastern newt Painted turtle
Wild Turkey Ruffed grouse
Wood duck Black duck
Hooded merganser
Pied-billed grebe
Blue-winged teal Raven
Sharp-shinned hawk
Broad-winged hawk
Osprey Bald eagle
Barred owl
Great horned owl
Northern saw-whet owl
Belted kingfisher
Pileated woodpecker
Hairy woodpecker
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Alder flycatcher
Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse
White-breasted nuthatch
Wood thrush Ovenbird
Eastern bluebird
Cedar waxwing
Red-eyed vireo
Prarie warbler

Short of development, most land use changes will provide beneficial habitat for some species and perhaps be less favorable to others. One way we may try to determine the best management practices for a given area is to look at the habitat types or species populations that are declining. Our management approach can then be tailored to address those declines.

Field to Forest...and Everything in Between
One of the key concepts of habitat change is that of plant succession. Succession is the long and complex process by which a given plant community will change over time within the limits of the many conditions influencing the site. As a general example, a bare field will initially support herbaceous growth for a a photo outdoorsfew years as shrub and tree saplings become established. The trees will soon take over the site and eventually create a forest. Even as the forest develops, the plant community changes due to succession. Wildlife managers recognize this phenomenon and manipulate succession to meet habitat goals.

According to U.S. Forest Service data, Maryland forests comprise mostly saw timber (greater than 12-inch diameter) sized trees, considered a late succession stage. This more mature timber occupies 66 percent of the forestland base, an increase of six percent since 1986. Although forested habitats are being lost to development, the existing forest is maturing. Currently the early succession or seedling/sapling age forest is limited, comprising only 11 percent of Maryland's forestland base. However, we are not alone; throughout the Northeast early succession forest habitat is being lost to maturing forest as well as development.

For the Birds
The decline of American woodcock populations in the East is one of the most notable examples of a species that may be suffering from this trend in habitat loss. The woodcock is one of Maryland's important migratory birds, providing popular recreation through hunting and birding. The spring courtship ritual of the male woodcock is one of the most entertaining displays in the bird world. Woodcock males attract females by leaping into the air, ascending in a series of widening circles upwards of 250 feet, then pouring out a song of liquid chirps and zigzagging to the ground like a falling leaf. However annual North American Singing Ground Surveys conducted since 1968 indicate there has been about a three percent population decline per year in the eastern region. A number of other birds that require young forest habitats have been experiencing population declines as well, including the golden-winged warbler, veery, common yellowthroat and yellow-breasted chat. Some records indicate that almost 70 percent of bird species associated with young forest habitats are experiencing declines.

In an effort to address this trend of losing young forest stands, Mt. Nebo WMA is managed to provide excellent habitat for early succession forest bird species. A photo of a woodcock. They are just one of 236 species documented as occurring at Mt. Nebo WMAThe large wetland complex found in the heart of the WMA has excellent alder and shrub habitat that is used extensively by species like woodcock and alder flycatchers. Small patch forest cuts have been created throughout the area since the 1970s to extend the early succession forest cover and expand the available habitat for these and other popular species such as ruffed grouse. For years after the initial cuts were made, annual surveys conducted showed that the habitat manipulation was successful in distributing grouse populations throughout the area. The most recent forest regeneration cuts, made to supplement and continue providing early succession forest habitat at Mt. Nebo, were completed in 2002.

Much planning goes into deciding if, when and where to conduct habitat management as dramatic to the landscape as a timber harvest. We try to place these harvest areas where they will provide the most benefit to the target wildlife species and have the least negative impact on other species. For this reason, we locate harvest sites adjacent to areas that already have forest fragmentation, such as along roadways, power line rights-of-way or field edges. The largest area of contiguous forest as well as all stream corridors and riparian areas on Mt. Nebo are kept free from timber harvest and management equipment. These areas will continue to support mature forest habitats.

At Mt. Nebo WMA, our goal is to provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species by conducting forest harvests to provide key early succession habitat while maintaining the integrity of contiguous forest and riparian habitats. Though no one acre or one area can be all things to all wildlife, through careful planning and discussion we can make the best management choices for the species in the greatest need. Thus, consistent with the WMA mission statement noted earlier, Mt. Nebo WMA is managed to provide a mix of diverse habitats supporting a variety of wildlife populations for the citizens of Maryland to enjoy. The next time you are in Garrett County, plan to stop by and visit this diverse wildlife management area - you'll be glad you did.

For more information about Mt. Nebo WMA, visit the DNR website at

Rick Latshaw is a habitat biologist with the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service in the Western Region.  Pete Jayne is the Associate Director for Regional Operations for the Wildlife and Heritage Service.

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