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Millar Western hosts a public presentation on Songbird Habitat Research.

Millar Western’s getting the skinny on thinning. A number of years ago, the company identified a gap in the available scientific knowledge regarding the effects of pine stand thinning, a part of intensive forest management, on wildlife habitat. Now, the company is mid-way through a $215,000, five-year study of songbird populations, gathering numbers that will make a significant contribution to the information available to resource users in their development of management practices for the protection of forest biodiversity and other values.

While it is known that intensive forest management can increase timber yields from a given landbase, Millar Western is working to identify additional impacts and benefits. One intensive forest management practice is forest thinning, a process in which stands are selectively cut to reduce the number of tree stems per hectare in a carefully-timed, first-pass harvest. Pine stands often naturally regenerate at very high densities that can stifle individual tree growth. Thinning stands makes them more productive because the remaining trees enjoy the benefits of increased growing space, better nutrient availability, and greater light penetration. The result is a higher timber yield per hectare in a second-pass harvest.

Millar Western is contributing $120,000 to the songbird study; other major funding partners include Woodlands Forest Management Inc. and the National Centre for Excellence in Sustainable Forest Management. The study is looking to determine the change in forest structure that results from thinning pine stands, and to relate this change to a biological response in songbird species richness (the number of different bird species) and abundance (the number of birds within a given species). Songbirds were chosen as the indicator species for this wildlife habitat study for a number of reasons. They are the most numerous of bird orders in Alberta; they are excellent indicators of environmental change because they have specific habitat requirements; they are susceptible to change within their habitat; there is a global interest in maintaining population densities; and their abundance and habitat are readily measurable.

For the study, two separate sets of information are being collected: vegetation data and songbird data. In total, 33 permanent sample plots have been established to monitor change in forest structure and composition, and 76 different bird species have been inventoried. By correlating the known change in the forest structure with the unknown response in songbird population, the study will determine the effects of thinning. When complete, the study should yield important information for forest managers, other resources users and scientists striving to develop the best management scenarios for timber and non-timber forest values.