The historic role of humans and other keystone species in shaping central hardwood forests for disturbance-dependent wildlife
EXCERPT FROM: Natural Disturbances and Historic Range Variation 2015
Multiple natural disturbance types historically created conditions that
were suitable for many, but not all, disturbance-dependent wildlife species in the Central Hardwood Region (CHR). In addition, some wildlife species, such as beavers, passenger pigeons, elk, and bison, historically functioned as keystone species by creating or maintaining unique disturbed habitats that otherwise would be rare. For millennia, humans (Native Americans, and later European settlers) also created and maintained early successional habitat variants (estimated at 7–43 % of the CHR landscape in 1500 AD) including farmlands, old fi elds in different stages of succession, grasslands, and open woodlands by clearing for cultivation and settlements, frequent burning, and old field abandonment. In this chapter, we argue that humans
were a keystone species in the CHR, having a major influence on the diversity, distribution, and abundance of many disturbance-dependent wildlife species by creating, maintaining, or greatly expanding specific, unique types of early successional habitats and some mature forest types dominated by shade-intolerant pioneer species, such as yellow pine. Determining the largely unknowable historic range of variation of natural disturbances, selecting an arbitrary moment on a temporally and spatially dynamic landscape as a reference, and subjectively deciding what should or should not be included as ‘natural’ may not serve as the most productive guide for conservation. Alternatively, forest and land use planning for diverse wildlife conservation might more logically start with clear objectives, and proceed with management activities targeted toward attaining them.