The term habitat gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? And what qualifies as “good habitat” versus “bad habitat?”
First, habitat is defined as: The area or natural environment in which an organism or population normally lives. A habitat is made up of non-living components such as soil, moisture, temperature and availability of light; as well as living components like food availability and presence of predators.
What makes one habitat more suitable than another depends on what the goals are for that habitat. Economic targets (like in commercial forestry), preferred species for viewing or hunting, managing for threatened or endangered species, etc. will all have different traits deemed beneficial to the habitat. In short, it depends a lot on what the individual managing the area ultimately wants.
The following article was written by Bill Cook, a Michigan State University Extension Forester. More of his articles can be found on this page hosted by the Michigan Society of American Foresters.
What Is Good Habitat?
The term “wildlife habitat” conjures-up different meanings for different people. Some of these meanings contradict each other. Management practices that “improve” habitat will benefit some species but will also discriminate against others.
It’s usually a bit misleading to hear people mention that a management practice is “good” for wildlife, even though the notion has a warm fuzzy feeling. Such statements offer an opportunity for education, or at least clarification. Any practice is both good and bad, depending upon which species of wildlife are considered. What people probably mean is that a management practice might be good for their favorite species. Often, they don’t or aren’t aware of other species’ habitat needs.
Habitat, in an ecological sense, incorporates physical characteristics in the landscape within which a particular species can find basic life cycle requirements such as food, water, and cover (e.g. shelter, nesting, etc.). There about as many sets of requirements as there are species. Species can be animal or plant or other living organism.
Alternatively, when one gazes upon a forest or wetland, there is a sense of habitat quality that loosely incorporates the numerous physical characteristics of that particular landscape, or ownership. One can imagine how well those characteristics might suit their particular favorite species.
If the habitat appears to satisfy the needs of those favorite species, the gazer deems the habitat “good”. If the gazer discerns something lacking, then perhaps the habitat will be perceived as “bad”. Humans tend to qualify the goodness of something by using personal preferences. Sometimes, those preferences are even rooted in science-based knowledge.
Confusion can easily erupt with the complexity of species requirements and human perception.
In a certain sense, there is no such thing as “bad” habitat. As an extreme example, even a parking lot has some attributes favorable for some species. Take for instance; if you’re a gull, that parking lot has plenty of tidbits to glean from trash that have been left behind by unthinking shoppers. If gulls were the only species of interest, might parking lots be considered critical habitat?
Ecologically, each vegetation type has a range of natural attributes. A type with a full set of attributes would be considered high quality habitat. A habitat progressively loses functionality with the absence or reduction of each natural attribute. For example, a northern hardwood forest might be missing den trees, standing snags, or large dead trees on the ground. That forest doesn’t possess the full range of attributes; therefore, it is not as high quality, in an ecological sense, as a similar forest that does have the full range. However, it is still a bountiful resource.
Of course, management can alter the characteristics of a particular vegetation type or can create an altogether different type. Management can restore lost habitat components. A similar dynamic occurs with long-neglected forests.
The goals of a forest owner may not include all the natural attributes of a forest type. Continuing with the northern hardwood example, an owner may wish to manage for maximum tree quality and monetary value. In the process, those den trees, standing snags, and large dead-and-down trees may not have much importance to the owner. The forest continues to possess most habitat attributes but the loss of some ecological richness will reduce the potential for wildlife species dependent upon den trees, snags, and old logs. In this way, an owner may unintentionally lessen the aesthetic appeal of their woodland.
Similarly, folks will often evaluate habitat through the lens of a favorite wildlife species, such as white-tailed deer. “Good” habitat is often gauged by seeing lots of deer. “Bad” habitat doesn’t have many deer. The habitat may have huge missing pieces and may not be sustainable, nevertheless it will be deemed good if deer can be easily seen while hunting. Habitat quality extends beyond the last half of November.
Conversely, good deer habitat, from an ecological perspective, will likely be more diverse and may have more deer than what can be easily seen, even when a fair-sized deer population exists. To the casual observer, if they ain’t easy to see it ain’t good. Good deer habitat will provide enough cover so that deer aren’t so easily seen.
This same “lens viewing” idea might be applied to many other species and situations. Endangered species management, such has Kirtland’s warbler, results in a more narrow-focused habitat perspective due to federal and state laws. In some cases, this practice may be warranted and will yield net benefits over time and space.
The manner in which we manage, or don’t manage, forest habitats and larger landscapes often has more to do with what we want to see, what we think we see, and less about measures ecological function. Sometimes, conflicts arise between forest users with different viewpoints. Occasionally, those conflicts carry considerable political charge and significant economic consequence.
In the end, it might be helpful to remember that all habitat has value and all habitat will naturally change with time, assuming it’s not replaced by some other land use. Obtaining professional wildlife management advice will help owners better understand some of the complexity and, hopefully, lead to more satisfying ownership benefits.