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Today is May 30, 2020

Hidden opportunities for habitat on the line: managing rights-of-way for wildlife habitat

Like the old dog sleeping on the porch, some things practically vanish … until you trip over them. For many Mississippians, habituation has hidden a great opportunity to develop wildlife habitat on their property: utility line rights-of-way.

By John Gruchy, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks

Hidden opportunities for habitat on the line: managing rights-of-way for wildlife habitat

Corridors for power, flowers and birds 
In addition to powering our homes and communities, utility rights-of-way (ROWs) provide potential for corridors of open land in heavily forested landscapes. Though many species of wildlife survive and thrive in forests, a dense canopy of trees prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Lower growing herbs, wildflowers, grasses and shrubs required by some wildlife, such as bobwhites and rabbits, cannot persist in the shade. Where ROWs run through forested areas, there is a great potential to interject a different plant community and add some habitat diversity to a property or a landscape. 

With financial assistance from the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service and technical guidance from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) Private Lands Program, Rodney Johnson was able to establish a patch of native wildflowers and grasses to provide habitat for pollinating insects on a newly constructed ROW on his tree farm in Clay County. “I am primarily interested in wild turkeys,” said Johnson, “so I picked a planting with a lot of flowers to attract bugs for turkeys to pick up.”

A recent collaborative study by Mississippi State University and the MDWFP demonstrated just how valuable ROWs can be for concentrating turkey movements on a property. At study sites in Attala, Copiah, Lamar and Marshall Counties, researchers caught turkeys and attached GPS transmitters. In all four locations, utility ROWs were one of the landscape features that received the most usage by the birds.    

Maintenance mowing, herbicides and habitat
Traditionally, electric utilities maintained ROWs using mowing and side trimming to keep the ROW clear of vegetation. “Now we primarily use herbicides applied by low-volume, back-pack crews to control woody vegetation,” said Wesley Graham, field biologist with Cooperative Energy in Hattiesburg. In addition to improved maintenance capabilities, the cooperatives are seeing something that was perhaps unexpected. “We’re seeing an increase in use of ROWs by gopher tortoises, a protected reptile. In the end, if we can help the ecosystem and meet the cooperative’s objectives, that’s a win-win.”    

By shifting the plant community from woody vegetation to more native grasses and wildflowers (herbaceous plants), ROWs offer better forages for gopher tortoise, while also benefitting game species such as white-tailed deer and turkey. The open areas in ROWs are often full of high-quality native forages hidden in plain sight.

Managing ROWs on your property 
In many instances, ROWs present an opportunity to expand upon or provide connectivity among different plant communities. For questions about permitted activities on ROWs on your property, contact your local utility company.

To discover more hidden potential for managing wildlife on your property, visit or call 601-432-2199 to schedule a no-cost site visit with a Private Lands Biologist.

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