Seeing wildlife in your backyard can be very enjoyable. You will probably see some kind of wildlife whether you consciously do anything to attract it or not. This article will give some suggestions about how to improve habitat for wildlife on your land.
Wildlife habitat includes the four basic components of food, cover (or shelter), water, and space. Improvements to habitat can involve water, but water is usually difficult to provide if it is not already there. We can not make more space, but space can be preserved for wildlife by setting aside land that will not be used for other purposes. One way to do this is through conservation easements. For information on conservation easements, call the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Most habitat improvements will include plants that provide food and cover for certain wild animals.
The kind of improvements you implement will be determined by several factors; The size of your property; availability of water; the kind of wildlife you want to attract; the current condition of the land; your budget; and the amount of time you are willing to spend. All of these factors should be considered when making a conservation plan for your property or planning a single habitat improvement project.
Before beginning a project, think about how your project will complement the existing ecosystem. It is best to improve habitat for wildlife that lives near you, rather than trying to attract animals that do not use the habitat types that are found in the area. Trying to force plants to grow that are not suited to the climate or soil of your area would be inefficient at best, and might be a complete waste of time.
Habitat improvement does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. You can do things as simple as turning off outdoor lights, or limiting the use of them, to reduce disturbance to wild animals. You will probably be doing some landscaping anyway, so choosing native plants for your landscaping will take little extra time and the value to wildlife will be substantially better than that of nonnative plants.
The first thing that many people think of when hear the word “habitat” is trees. But planting trees is not the only activity that benefits wildlife. Grass seeding, wetland preservation or improvement, and riparian fencing projects are some other practices that can provide high quality wildlife habitat. Sometimes the best thing for wildlife is to leave the land as it is and be sure to control any noxious weeds that appear.
Regardless of what kind of project you are putting in, you should always use native speciesof plants that are found in Colorado. Nonnative species are not as good for Colorado’s native wildlife species. Nonnative plants also have the potential for growing out of control and creating a monoculture, replacing the variety of plants that normally grow with just one kind of plant.
Tree & Shrub Planting
Trees can provide a home to many different types of wildlife. They can provide shelter from the wind and the sun for livestock and for your house. If you plant a variety of native tree species, you may improve the biodiversity of your neighborhood.
Woody vegetation in eastern Colorado is predominantly cottonwood-willow associations in riparian zones along streams. This habitat type is used by most wildlife species that live on the plains. If a stream with a sufficiently high water table runs through your property, you might not have to plant anything. Fencing off areas to prevent or reduce livestock grazing will most likely allow cottonwood trees, willows, and other shrubs to grow naturally. If your riparian habitat is degraded and lacking vegetation, you can get it started by planting a buffer of native grasses and shrubs. This will provide bank stabilization as well as wildlife habitat.
If you are planting a windbreak or shrub thicket, the best time to plant trees is early fall. The next best time of year is late winter or early spring. If you choose trees and shrubs that bloom and bear fruit and nuts at different times of the year, you will have a good opportunity to view a variety of animals. A weed barrier will help early growth by preventing weeds from growing. This will allow more moisture to be used by the desired plants. Some good species to plant include chokecherry, American plum, sumac, serviceberry, currant, skunkbush, fourwing saltbush, snowberry, common juniper, and cottonwood. Species to avoid are Russian olive and tamarisk (saltcedar), which are nonnative invasive plants that have detrimental impacts on native wildlife. Contact the Division of Wildlife or the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to find out what will grow best on your property.
All animals need water to survive. Some get all the water they need from their food, but most need to drink at least some of their water. Installing a pond is a good way to attract a variety of wildlife species, from shorebirds and waterfowl to amphibians and large or small mammals. Ponds may be built by constructing a dam to catch runoff or by using an artificial water supply. Ponds can vary in size. If landscaping around the pond is suitable, aquatic and semiaquatic plants may become established without planting. You can also use submerged pots of water lilies, iris, spikerush, and other native plants. Native species are strongly recommended over non-natives. If you have a pond for watering livestock, consider fencing off part of the pond to allow aquatic vegetation to grow while letting the livestock use the other end of the pond.
Building a wetland can provide habitat for wildlife while helping prevent flooding and pollution of neighboring creeks. Any depression that collects runoff is a potential spot to establish a wetland. Partially blocking an existing drainage way or digging a shallow basin may be all you need to do if you have clay soil that naturally holds water. You could also bury a plastic liner in a shallow depression to help it stay wet most of the time. It does not have to stay wet all year to be beneficial to wildlife.
Grasses provide food and cover for many of the wildlife species found in eastern Colorado. Ground-nesting birds, foxes, pronghorn, hawks, owls, and mule deer are some of the animals that can benefit from a grass-seeding project.
Plant while the ground is thawed, but between November 1 and April 30. Plant a cover crop the spring before seeding the grass. The cover crop will reduce erosion, conserve moisture, and suppress weed competition. Use forage sorghum, long-season milo, forage millet, oats, or other varieties. Sterile varieties are best since they will not provide a viable seed that can compete with the grass the following year. Cut the cover crop down to 6″-8″ high in the fall and seed grass directly into the stubble. Control weeds prior to seeding. A firm seedbed is necessary for warm season grasses. Freshly disked or rototilled ground should not be planted until it settles from snowpack or rain.
*Choosing a mix: Pick a good seed mix that is appropriate for your soil and planned use. Cool season grasses begin growing in the spring earlier than warm season grasses. If you plant more than a very small percentage of them (10% or less) they will outcompete the warm season grasses in your mix. Therefore, you should avoid brome and wheatgrass for the most part. Smooth brome and crested wheatgrass are two of the worst grasses to use since they aggressively outcompete the warm season grasses and have poor wildlife qualities. The warm season native mixes will not look good until the second or third year. It takes them some time to get established. During the first season, the grass is putting its growth into the roots. The top will grow in subsequent years. If you do not adequately control weeds prior to planting, these grasses will take three to four years to establish. Contact the Division of Wildlife or the NRCS to get more information on seeding techniques and seed mixes.
Now that you have an idea of what kind of projects you can implement, you might want more detailed information or some help with funding. You might be eligible for one of several cost share programs that provide funding for wildlife habitat. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service provides funds through Partners for Wildlife. The Division of Wildlife has funds available through the Colorado Habitat Improvement Program (CHIP). The NRCS has two cost-share programs, the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The numbers for these agencies are listed below if you wish to inquire about any of these programs.