BEAR CREEK TWP. -- Pennsylvania Game Commission land management officer Mike Beahm drove his truck through several habitat improvement projects on State Game Lands 119 and marveled at the potential.
Nearby, Jerry Greeley of Wilkes-Barre was busy realizing that potential as he watched his beagle, Jake, chase a rabbit through a maze of brushpiles and slashings that Beahm's food and cover crew had recently created.
Beahm admits that the habitat on SGL 119 in Bear Creek and Dennison townships is still a work in progress, but Greeley said that progress is already occurring.
"For someone who likes to hunt rabbits and small game, the Game Commission did me a huge favor," Greeley said as he loaded his beagle into his truck at the parking lot near Francis Walter Dam. "I never thought I'd be hunting rabbits up here, and I'm seeing more grouse and turkey, too. It's good right now, but it's going to get better."
That's because the PGC has several ambitious habitat improvement projects either underway or scheduled for the area.
Across from the entrance to Francis Walter, much of SGL 119 resembles a vast, barren landscape created when the U.S. Army Corps stripped the land for fill to build the dam decades ago. A mix of hardwood forest, and stands of scotch pine and white birch, surround the open expanse, and deeper into SGL 119 are thick tangles of scrub oak, or barrens habitat.
It's a pretty diverse place, but one that can be improved to benefit wildlife and hunters. Beahm has a plan to do just that, and it involves a bit of fire and a machine called a Hydro-Axe.
This year, the agency will conduct several habitat improvement projects on game lands throughout the region. In some places, thanks to the mild winter, work has already begun.
On SGL 119, Beahm and his crew were able to utilize the agency-owned Hydro-Axe – which resembles a log skidder equipped with a rotary head with two-inch thick blades capable of cutting and dicing trees up to 10-inches in diameter. This winter, the machine was used to slash through a section of woods adjoining a meadow area near the dam.
With the exception of several mature oak trees, the Hydro-Axe slashed through everything in sight, leaving behind a tangled mess that will regenerate this spring into an early successional forest.
"It will provide a good heavy cover and food source for deer, grouse and rabbit, and even attract pheasants that are flushed from the grassy areas during hunting season," Beahm said. "The machine makes a mess of things, which is what you want. I'm hoping this area will come back so thick that you can't walk through it by the end of summer."
Along the edge of the meadow, scotch pines and birch trees were cut. The tops will be used for brush piles for rabbits, Beahm said, while the birch will be allowed to regenerate.
"The birch are dormant right now, so the roots are full of energy needed to shoot up new growth, creating additional browse for deer," he said.
While the Hydro-Axe and chainsaws were the tools of choice for the trees, fire will be used to transform the barren meadow.
Beahm said 26 acres of the grassland are targeted for a prescribed burn this spring. The fire will eliminate the thick thatch on the ground that has prevented plantings of native, warm season grasses from germinating.
After the flames have passed, Beahm said the existing native grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass will flourish, providing food and cover for rabbit, pheasant and turkey.
"The native grasses have a real deep root system which allows them to survive the fire," Beahm said, adding additional plantings will help augment the regrowth.
"We want to create a bowl here, with tall grassland and cover along the edge. That will really help hold the pheasants that are released here."
In the interior of Game Lands 119 in Dennison Township, the Hydro-Axe was used to slash more than 50 acres of thick scrub oak. The cut areas will be part of a 150-acre prescribed burn this summer.
Scrub oaks make up unique and somewhat rare habitat called barrens. The cutting from the Hydro-Axe won't kill them and the fire will only help, Beahm said.
"We're losing barrens habitat because it's getting shaded out by taller hardwoods. They're an important ecosystem that a lot of threatened species rely on, such as the golden-winger warbler," he said.
Conducting a prescribed burn in a barrens habitat isn't as simple as striking a match. The thick cover is loaded with leaf litter, creating the potential for an inferno if safety steps aren't taken.
That's where the Hydro-Axe comes in. The machine slashes the trees into small chips and shreds, reducing the fuel load and lowering flame heights to a manageable two to four feet.
The burn is also conducted in late summer, when the surrounding woods are green and not as flammable.
Finally, 12-foot wide paths, or fire breaks, are cleared around every prescribed burn area to reduce the chance of fire escaping into other areas. Later, the fire breaks will be planted with clover to create wildlife food strips.
"Fire gives us an option for habitat improvement when you can't cut timber or do much else to an area," Beahm said.
"We have a lot of things happening here, and I'm chomping at the bit to get this work done. There's a ton of potential here."
Mike Beahm said he is often approached by hunters wanting to know why the Game Commission doesn't conduct more timber harvests on game lands. When conditions are right, cutting mature timber is an effective way to encourage regeneration, he said, but it's a practice that could backfire in areas.
"You need to have quality soil before you can do a timber sale in an area, or you're not going to get anything to grow back," Beahm said. "If I don't see the potential for regeneration, I'm very hesitant to conduct a timber sale in that area."
The barrens habitats in northeastern Pennsylvania are important areas for a number of threatened and endangered species, in addition to providing valuable food and cover for deer, grouse and other game. With an increase in manpower, the ability to conduct prescribed burns and new equipment such as the Hydro-Axe, the Pennsylvania Game Commission can improve barrens habitats and keep them thriving.
"We want to set the clock back on some of these areas," said Pete Sussenbach, land management supervisor for the PGC's Northeast Region. "We're already seeing increases in deer activity in these areas the first year after we conduct a burn.
"I suspect in the next couple years we'll see dramatic increases in both deer and small game activity in the areas where we do work."