A UBC professor is putting wood waste left over from logging operations on clear cut sites to use as habitat for small mammals in the Elkhart area near Merritt.

Tom Sullivan has been conducting research to determine if piles of this wood debris — or windrows — are being used by mammal species such as voles, mice, martens and weasels.

Sullivan and his students have spent many years studying the interactions between small mammals and forestry activities.

He spoke about his work in the Merritt area to a group from the Nicola Naturalist Society at NVIT on Nov. 20.

In his presentation, Sullivan said windrows can act as dens or even corridors for these mammals to travel from one area of forest to another where a clear cut stands in the way. He said small mammals don’t like to venture into open clearings as they are easy prey.

In the Elkhart area, Sullivan examined wood debris windrows erected on a clear cut, as well as dispersed woody debris and uncut old-growth forests.

To measure the usage of these sites by small mammals, Sullivan and his research team examined droppings and set up live traps. He said they also looked at predation events, as weasels and martens would sometimes eat the mice or voles caught in the live traps.

His study showed small mammals were indeed living in the windrows — moreso than in the dispersed areas, and comparably to forested areas.potestio_wood waste_web

He said the results showed predator species of martens and weasels, along with prey species such as red-backed voles, were present in the windrows, along with many other animals.

Forestry companies are mandated by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to dispose of excess wood waste by either sending it to be used as bioenergy or burning it.

They are also expected to leave some of that wood waste on clear cuts as soil nutrient.

Removal is done to mitigate fire hazard and leave space to replant trees, Chuck van Hemmen, district manager of the Cascades Natural Resource District, said.

Although not desired, burning is done when wood waste cannot be economically used for bioenergy because of high transportation costs, he said.

Windrows require permission from the ministry to be constructed and are considered on a case-by-case basis with respect to the fire hazard.

A variance was acquired by Aspen Planers to build the windrows in Elkhart, Sullivan said.

In his presentation, Sullivan also spoke of some of the stumbling blocks facing the windrow option — that windrows are considered fire hazards being one of them.

“I’m not sure in 2014 we should be adding more smoke into the atmosphere or greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change,” Sullivan said.

He said feedstocks of wood waste from logging sites located far away from cities such as Merritt are not economically feasible to truck to cities to be used to produce biofuel.

Sullivan said there is a possibility of these wood waste piles catching fire from lightning or human activity.

Other concerns Sullivan spoke of include the cost of producing windrows, small mammals feeding on newly planted trees surrounding a windrow, and the amount of space windrows would take up on a clear cut, which could be used to plant new trees.

Sullivan said these windrows are naturally made as machines log, and by constructing windrows during logging activity, no additional costs are incurred.

As for concerns windrows would take up area to plant new trees, Sullivan said windrows on clear cuts typically take up less than five per cent of a clear cut area.

He said windrows are, on average, built to be about two metres tall and about seven metres wide.

To rectify the issue of voles or other small mammals feeding on newly growing trees planted near windrows, Sullivan recommended planting new trees farther away from windrows in clear cut openings.

Aspen Planers provided financial support as well as equipment and areas to work in for this research, Aspen Planers manager Jerry Canuel told the Herald.

“As a professional forester, we have to make sure that if there are animals, and habitat and species — and whatever those values are that exist out there — we have to do the best we can to manage for them, and this is just part of that,” Canuel said of working with Sullivan.

Canuel said the windrow option is one the forestry company will continue to use in the future if it’s feasible.

Sullivan said windrows should be placed away from main roads to mitigate the chance of people lighting them on fire, and only in select locations. He said windrows should not be built in places near towns as that wood waste could be used as biofuel.

He also said windrows should connect forest patches and riparian areas, with openings to allow access for grazing cattle.

Sullivan said there is a strategic need for habitat given the damage caused by the pine beetle in recent years.