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Wildlife Division Creating "Rabbitat" on State Game Areas
February 10, 2011
By now, most folks have heard about the Pheasant Recovery Initiative, a cooperative program in which the Department of Natural Resources and Environment is partnering with other government agencies and a couple of conservation groups with a goal of returning pheasant hunting to popularity in Michigan. It's a sweeping, long-range venture that will take decades to fully play out and is part of the DNRE's plan to recruit more folks into small game hunting, which has been in decline for many years.
The initiative has created a lot of buzz among both the hunting fraternity and the Wildlife Division. And it got state wildlife staffers thinking about what they could do to promote and improve other small game hunting opportunities.
Rabbit hunting came immediately to mind.
"We wondered, 'Is there something we can do that'll be easier to accomplish than what we're doing with pheasants?' " said John Niewoonder, a wildlife biologist who works out of Flat River State Game Area in Ionia County. "We've already got rabbits, so we decided to focus on building brush piles on state game areas."
Brush piles make ideal escape/nesting habitat,or "rabbitat" as the wildlife staffers have taken to calling it, for cottontails.
"Our old game area management plans from decades ago talked about building brush piles," Niewoonder said. "We don't do as much on-the-ground, hands-on habitat work to benefit the small-game critters that we want around as we used to because we don't always have the time, and we don't have nearly the staff that we used to."
So using a diagram for brush piles that he found in some old work plans, Niewoonder organized a field day for wildlife staffers from two district offices at the Portland State Game Area. By that afternoon, the crew had built 18 giant brush piles 20 to 25 feet on a side and up to eight feet tall.
The crews started out by dropping trees that were 8 to 12 inches in diameter.
"We lay down five or six bigger logs, and then lay another five or six perpendicular to them on top," Niewoonder explained. "Then another row or two, then throw the tops on top. You create a really nice brush pile with lots of openings and passageways and enough brush on top to protect the rabbits that get in there from predators and from rain and snow. And we build them in clusters so they're in groups of two or three or four. "
The crew cut mostly oaks "the harder the wood you use, the longer it's going to last," Niewoonder explained,though the plan was simply to use whatever was available.
That became apparent the next week, when the crew met up at Gratiot-Saginaw State Game Area and built roughly 20 brush piles.
"We used a lot of Scotch pine, so we kind killed two birds with one stone, so to speak - we built the brush piles but we also got rid of some non-native trees," explained wildlife biologist Dan Kennedy. "They were 30 or 40 years old and were expanding their range into places we didn't want them."
Kennedy said he wanted the structures to be visible and easily accessible, so they built some near a parking lot where visitors can easily find them.
Kennedy said he hopes to expand the brush pile program to state lands at Rose Lake and Dansville and wildlife staffers are already doing it at Maple River State Game Area, creating brush piles out of autumn olive they're removing from the area.
Kennedy sees the project as sort of a throw-back management style."This is what we used to do," he said. "It's kind of exciting to get back into it."
The staff at the Waterloo Wildlife Office at Grass Lake has access to a work crew of prison trustees, which they've put to work at several locations. At Lost Nations State Game Area, the work crew built a 150-yard long brush pile out of autumn olive and box elder they wanted removed. The crew is working on smaller brush piles at Somerset State Game Area, where they're removing unwanted Scotch pines.
Brush piles are not magic; finding them will not guarantee hunting success. But they do provide necessary habitat for cottontails.
"Certainly a coyote or fox is going to have trouble getting in there," Niewoonder said. "So a beagle will, too. But brush piles will provide warm dry places where the rabbits can nest. The idea is to increase the population, not necessarily just provide easy hunting. We looked for our best spots and improved what we had there - grass and low-lying shrubs, brushy wetlands and idle fields that are converting to brush.
"We want small game hunters to have success - we want to create places for them to go where there are rabbits. All over southern Michigan there are rabbits. All it takes is a little cover. They reproduce quickly - they can have three or four litters a year - so we could start seeing an impact maybe by next year."
The sooner the better, most agree. At one time Michigan boasted some 400,000 rabbit hunters. The latest data indicate there are about 80,000 now. Obviously, there's room for more rabbit hunters and Wildlife Division is hopeful that if it builds the "rabbitat" the hunters will come.
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