Achieving Sustainability Goals

Fish and Wildlife Agencies can play a role in successful biomass production for bioenergy.
By The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies | September 22, 2014

Fish, wildlife and the habitats they depend on not only enrich our lives, they support our economy.  Every year, outdoor recreation contributes about $650 billion to the American economy and supports 6.1 million jobs—nearly one in 20 of all U.S. jobs. Hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent recreation alone generates $145 billion per year. Bioenergy production from restoration and/or sustainable management of existing native plant communities offers some of the best opportunities to help meet U.S. energy goals while, at the same time, conserving fish and wildlife. With attention to advance planning and the assistance of state fish and wildlife agencies and other conservation partners, we can meet the nation’s energy goals and sustain native fish and wildlife. 

Opportunities to collaborate include:

Forests. Removal of small-diameter woody material from overstocked native forests can help restore forest health and ecologically site-appropriate diversity, as well as reduce wildfire risk.  Selective thinning of plantation forests, particularly pine stands in the southeastern U.S., could also benefit wildlife such as the bobwhite quail. 

Grasslands. The restoration of native grasses such as big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass on prairie landscapes where land was previously converted to agricultural row crops, such as in the northern Great Plains, could provide producers with the flexibility to use the biomass for energy purposes or livestock forage, depending on market needs.  Wildlife may benefit through the return of native plant communities that are among the most highly diminished of any in the world (more than a 99 percent loss).

Invasive Species Removal. Invasive plants cost $120 billion per year to control and are a contributing factor in more than 400 threatened or endangered species listings in this country.  Harvest of these plants for biomass, with eradication as the goal, could benefit fish, wildlife and their native habitats while also reducing associated economic impacts.

Waste Materials. It makes sense to use readily available waste materials when possible before placing more land into bioenergy production.  Yard waste, debris from natural disasters such as wind throw, and other municipal solid waste can provide substantial biomass instead of filling landfills.

Rights of Way. Utility, highways, and other ROW require management, which could be coordinated with bioenergy production if planted with site-appropriate native biomass.

The more a land use like energy crop production can mimic a native habitat, the more favorable the impact on fish and wildlife.  The biggest factor contributing to fish and wildlife declines is habitat loss.  State fish and wildlife agencies and other conservation partners can help reduce habitat risks associated with bioenergy production. 

Risks include:

Land Conversion. Many energy crops are designed to grow on marginal lands not suitable for agricultural production, lands that are now supporting wildlife. A recent report prepared for the U.S.DOE suggested that 79 million acres of cropland and pasture may need to be redirected to energy crops to meet domestic liquid energy goals, an area the size of Missouri and Iowa combined. 

Biomass for other energy purposes, such as international markets or heat production, would be additive to that. It seems unlikely that this can be accomplished without conversion of remaining native ecosystems, either directly or indirectly, which makes advanced thought and planning crucial.

Aggressive Plants. Many energy crops are selected or genetically modified to grow rapidly, increase yields, be disease and pest resistant, and adapt to a wide variety of soils and climates.  Unfortunately, these are also the characteristics of species that may become invasive.  If native plants and cultivars are not used, prevention is the best tool to deter invasive species problems.  Developing an effective containment plan with the engagement of state fish and wildlife agencies is the best way to reduce risks.

Reduced Diversity. Energy crop production often maximizes yield with dense, single-species plantings. Unfortunately, wildlife populations decline when native habitat is replaced by plantings that contain fewer species.  Adding structural diversity (e.g., different mowing heights and times) and species diversity (e.g., legumes to replace soil nitrogen) can reduce negative impacts.

Harvest Timing. Wildlife need diverse plants for food during the spring and summer, either to consume directly or provide a substrate for insects that, in turn, serve as food.  In the late fall or winter, vegetative cover becomes more important to avoid predators and harsh weather.  Management that avoids harvest in spring and early summer, leaves field borders and minimizes the use of pesticides and herbicides can benefit wildlife and reduce producer costs.

Can bioenergy development and sound fish and wildlife management coexist?  The answer is, “It depends.” It is important for society to consider our natural resources in the economic equation if bioenergy is to be truly sustainable over the long term.  The following are some general guidelines for bioenergy development that can be adapted locally to help achieve mutually compatible goals:

Crop Establishment

• Avoid conversion of already diminished native habitats to establish energy crops.

• Use ecologically site-appropriate native species that match the native ecosystem.

• Develop containment plans with the involvement of state fish and wildlife agencies if aggressive nonnative species are under consideration.

• Mixed species plantings, especially those with native wildflowers and legumes, provide better habitat than monocultures.

• Break up single-species plantings into blocks of diversified crops to minimize risk to wildlife.

Water Quality/Quantity

• Plant buffers of native plant species between feedstock plantings, neighboring habitats, and waterways.  Wider is better, especially around water sources.

• Minimize use of water and select energy crops that use water efficiently.

• Minimize use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and avoid using them near streams or other water bodies.

• Wetlands, rivers, streams, or other natural aquatic habitats should not be used for energy crops, particularly for algae production, which should be produced only in closed systems with primary and secondary containment plans in place.

• Harvest invasive species, including aquatics, but keep the focus on reduction or elimination.

Energy Crop Harvest

• Harvest crops in late summer or fall to avoid primary nesting and calving seasons.

• Leave residual stubble (more than 10 inches recommended) or harvest early enough to allow for some fall regrowth for wildlife cover.

• Consider leaving a portion of the field unharvested each year; harvest in blocks instead of strips.

• Consider leaving corridors for wildlife to travel between habitats; make as wide as possible.

• Develop and enforce a sanitation and containment plan to ensure transportation of energy crops and moving of harvesting equipment does not spread potentially invasive species.

General Recommendations

• Contact your local wildlife resource agencies to customize these best management guidelines to meet the needs of the bioenergy project and fish and wildlife species in need of attention in your area.


*Editor's note: This article originally stated that wildlife may benefit through the return of native plant communities that are among the most highly diminished of any in the world (less than a 99 percent loss). It has been corrected to say more than a 99 percent loss.

*The article also recommended leaving residual stubble (less than 10 inches) or harvest early enough to allow for some fall regrowth for wildlife cover. It has been corrected to read more than 10 inches recommended.

Author: Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies