Early Successional Habitats
Early successional habitats include grasslands, shrublands, and young forests. These habitats tend to be ephemeral, requiring natural or man-made disturbance to prevent them from going through the more advanced stages of succession and becoming mature forest. Fire, grazing, flooding, wind storms, harvesting of wood, and agricultural activities are some examples of disturbance events that contribute to the creation and maintenance of early successional habitat. Generally speaking, in New Jersey, without some form of disturbance these habitats will become forested over time.
Healthy grasslands are usually made up of herbaceous plants and native warm-season grasses. Shrublands, or scrub-shrub habitats, consist of multi-stemmed woody plants or small trees with a well-developed herbaceous layer dispersed throughout. Young forest stands occur when enough time has passed since a disturbance for densely spaced tree saplings to become established. Each of these habitats can offer a complex and diverse vegetative structure that provides nesting opportunities, cover, and food for a variety of wildlife species. Many wildlife species depend on these areas at some point during their life history, making these habitats important for biodiversity conservation.
Historically, the locations of early successional habitats would shift continuously as some areas moved through succession and some were affected by disturbance. However, these areas are becoming increasingly rare throughout the United States due to many pressures, including changes in land use, encroachment by development, and suppression of natural disturbance processes such as fire and flooding. Because there are limited opportunities for these habitats to form naturally, land managers may choose to maintain particular tracts of land in an early successional state over the long term to provide critical habitats for species that depend on them.
New Jersey Audubon has made it a priority to protect, manage, and create early successional habitat that benefits many plant and animal species. Our projects are developed and implemented through partnerships with private landowners, local, state and federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, corporate partners, and others, and are found in focal areas throughout the state on both public and private lands. Creating and maintaining these critical habitats benefits not only individual species, but also whole landscapes and ecosystems, and the people who rely on and enjoy them.