Its All About the Hunt
Westervelt Lodge lies on 10,000 acres of the Tombigbee River flood plain in west central Alabama. Purchased by Gulf States Paper Corporation in the 1950s to serve as an outdoor hunting and recreation venue for its customers and employees, Westervelt over the years has evolved into a world-class hunting resort.
The Westervelt property features a diverse terrain. Mature and young pine stands, open fields and hardwood bottoms characterize this land where for over 50 years wildlife have been given permission to thrive.
The primary off-season forestland management techniques practiced during the first 40 years included mechanical thinning and prescribed burning on a three-to-five year rotation to remove hardwood brush from the pine stands. That's because Westervelt land managers understood that by reducing hardwood brush, sunlight would reach the forest floor, enabling the growth of food sources that wildlife prefer, such as forbs, legumes and rubus. In addition, from a hunting standpoint, removal of hardwood brush opens the understory, making it easier for hunters to spot wildlife.
Our goal has always been to provide customers with a high-quality hunting experience, said Kevin McKinstry, project director, Westervelt Wildlife Services. They need to be able to see the wildlife around them. It doesn't make for a real successful hunt when you have 15 deer walk 20-feet away from your stand and you can't see them.
Even with proactive management efforts like prescribed burns and mechanical removal, Westervelt's vast acreage made it difficult to optimize hardwood control with those methods alone. Westervelt land managers were concerned that invading hardwoods would eventually diminish wildlife habitat quality.
There are some places, such as low wet spots, where the hardwoods just get ahead of you, said Jay Steen, Westervelt Lodge manager. In a matter of two to three years sweetgums can jump 15 to 20 feet, outgrowing the effectiveness of a controlled fire.
McKinstry added, We were tired of fighting a daily battle against sweetgum and other unwanted vegetation and hardwood intrusion. From a hunting standpoint, our pine stands were not providing optimum conditions.
A New Technology Takes Root
Striving for greater long-term vegetation control, Westervelt land managers met with representatives from BASF in the early 1990s to discuss new approaches. BASF explained the multi-dimensional aspects of managing pine forests and how mechanical methods and prescribed burning are both limited means of control. The land managers learned that with some plant species, mechanical control can actually worsen the infestation, but that technology tools such as selective herbicides in combination with natural processes like fire, can effectively control hardwoods for up to 10 to 15 years.
Manufactured by BASF, selective herbicides provide intelligent vegetation control by only affecting enzymes found in unwanted and undesirable vegetation. To target specific plant species, selective herbicides penetrate undesirable plants and hardwood brush, such as sweetgum, killing them at their roots. The BASF selective herbicide family includes three offerings: Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate, Chopper® herbicide and OneStep® herbicide.
Controlling unwanted vegetation in pine forests with herbicides typically follows a management approach that seeks to control competitive vegetation at four distinct forest growth stages suitable for herbicide treatment: site preparation, herbaceous weed control, conifer release and mid-rotation release.
A site preparation treatment that occurs six months to a year after a harvest can successfully remove competitive hardwood species that might re-sprout. An application of OneStep® herbicide prior to planting controls a broad spectrum of woody brush, trees, vines and brambles and more than 120 species of grasses and broadleaf weeds, thereby assuring higher survival rates, as well as faster growth, of pines. Planting a new stand of pines can take place three months after the site preparation treatment.
In the first and second growing year following planting, broadleaf weeds, grasses and vines can dramatically slow the growth of pines. Boosting seedling survival and growth rates, Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate controls herbaceous weeds that compete with the desired pines for moisture, sun, soil and rooting space. A herbaceous weed control treatment that occurs in the first and second growing seasons can prevent this herbaceous competition.
In pine stands five to seven years old where a site preparation or herbaceous weed control treatment was not performed, hardwood brush can threaten the survival of pine stands. A conifer release treatment with Arsenal can help secure their growth.
Finally, a mid-rotation release treatment using Arsenal should occur in pine stands 10-15 years old to remove targeted hardwood species. With hardwood brush out of the way, sunlight reaches the forest floor and promotes the growth of plants favored by wildlife, like deer and turkey, and it increases visibility, making land safer and more valuable for hunting.
Improving Whitetail Habitat
Westervelt land managers found the selective herbicide technology intriguing and were anxious to employ it on their land.
BASF gave us a tour of their showpiece site near Cooksville, Mississippi, said McKinstry. That gave us a lot of ideas on how we could better manage our land with herbicides.
Instead of treating an entire area of mature pine stands, BASF persuaded them to try an innovative approach that involved applying a mid-rotation release treatment in an irregular "X" pattern consisting of 80-foot-wide strips from 100 to 800 yards long. The strips were oriented to connect existing wildlife corridors and deer food plots.
The treatment involved applying Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate in the fall, followed by a prescribed burn a few months later to remove the dead woody stems and return tied up nutrients to the soil. This gave the unused seed bank of forbs, legumes and rubus nutrition and exposure to sunlight.
Our objective was to encourage honeysuckle and other quality low vegetation, no taller than knee height, to improve the year-round food supply and enhance the hunting experience, said McKinstry. With the soil condition conducive to germination, within a year's time, wildlife-preferred forage flourished on the land. And the deer soon followed.
Expanding the Solution
In the Southeast, quail hunting once was a thriving sport, but with a 3.8 percent decline per year in bobwhite populations over the past 30 years, its popularity has diminished. A few years ago Westervelt Lodge set out change this.
From a quail standpoint, a dense hardwood understory provides poor habitat. At seven inches tall, quail require herbaceous, grassy cover on the ground.
Unfortunately, a hardwood understory can block sunlight preventing this desirable quail habitat from sprouting. Contributing to the buildup of that dense understory is a 50-year history of wildfire suppression, which has allowed hardwoods to densely populate pine stands. Both conditions fall beyond the reach of mechanical thinning or controlled burnsSo, pleased with their success in using selective herbicides to improve whitetail deer habitat, Westervelt saw an opportunity to restore quail habitat—and the quail hunting business.
We found that fire alone just can't get the job done, said McKinstry. Managing land for quail habitat requires the combination of fire and herbicide.
Recognizing that restoring quality quail habitat requires managing the canopy, the understory and ground cover, Westervelt land managers worked with BASF and Mississippi State University to implement a multi-step approach.
To control the hardwood brush, Westervelt conducted a mid-rotation release treatment using Arsenal® herbicide Applicators Concentrate. Following the treatment they introduced a two-to-three year rotating fire regime to provide additional control and stimulate grass, legume and forb germination.
Then, they dramatically thinned mature pine stands to open the canopy and allow sunlight to come through and hit the forest floor. This stimulated germination of herbaceous ground cover. Unfortunately, it also stimulated germination of invasive hardwood brush.
Next, Westervelt land managers used a roller chopper to create lanes through the pine stands. This provided access for quail hunting and provided soil disturbance to further encourage desirable plant growth. Lastly, food plots were established by planting grains, such as Egyptian wheat, to create supplemental food sources.
Mississippi State University Wildlife Professor Dr. Wes Burger explained the results of the multi-step approach. When we restore habitat by using technology tools like selective herbicides in combination with natural processes like fire, it's a win-win situation for wildlife and hunters, Burger says. In addition to quail habitat, it simultaneously enhances habitat quality for endangered species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, and other bird communities.
A Bountiful Business
Properly managing its hunting land allows Westervelt Lodge to charge a premium for its services. Anyone strolling through the rustic Westervelt Lodge building can clearly see the success its land managers have had in managing wildlife habitat. Trophy bucks adorn the walls and photo albums tell the stories of hundreds of bountiful hunts.
There's an upfront investment with herbicide treatment, but we have found that customers value properly managed land and are willing to pay extra for it, said Steen. Hunters appreciate being able to actually see an animal and decide whether to harvest it or pass on it.
McKinstry added: Using selective herbicides has been an important tool for us at Westervelt Lodge. The folks at BASF have worked closely with us and have brought a lot of innovative applications to our attention to improve habitat. We look forward to continuing this successful relationship.
BASF NOTE: Always read and follow label directions. Arsenal, Chopper and OneStep are registered trademarks of BASF.