Mark Nale: State Game Lands 333 — former Rockview property — teeming with plants, animals

Wildflowers, such as Indian blanket, attract insects which provide food for many species on SGL 333. - For the CDT/Mark Nale
Wildflowers, such as Indian blanket, attract insects which provide food for many species on SGL 333. - For the CDT/Mark Nale

A red-tailed hawk soared overhead, butterflies and songbirds flitted about, and diverse wildflowers added splashes of bright colors to the carpet of green. Warm-season grasses, planted just last spring, reached 5feet high in some places. Monarch butterflies, as many as six at a time, feasted on wildflower nectar.

Late last month, I had a tour of State Game Lands 333, the former Rockview property. Our first stop was what many might describe as a “weedy field” just off of the Shiloh Road exit of Interstate 99. There, my tour guides — Pennsylvania Game Commission land manager Eric Erdman, and Pheasants Forever leaders Jesse Putnam and Adam Smith — and I walked through the herbaceous opening, examining the new growth and looking for wildlife signs.

Erdman explained that this area had been treated with herbicides and then burned in the spring. Following the controlled burn, the PGC seeded the area with warm-season grasses and a mix of 23 species of native wildflowers.

“The herbicides and burning were done to knock back the many invasive plant species that had been growing there and to provide a favorable habitat for the establishment of warm season grasses,” Erdman said.

The warm-season grasses and wildflowers were doing well, but we noticed that alien species of thistles and crown vetch still grew among the plantings. Erdman noted that an additional application of herbicides might be needed, and another controlled burn would definitely be in the works. Controlled burns favor deep-rooted species such as milkweeds and warm-season grasses, while killing or slowing the growth of invasive species.

Warm-season grasses — such as switch grass, big blue stem, little blue stem and Indian grass — are unfamiliar plants to most people. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, native warm-season grasses provide optimum wildlife habitat conditions — food, shelter and living space — for many grassland wildlife species. Rabbits, wild turkeys, ring-necked pheasants, northern bobwhites, and a variety of songbirds and small mammals thrive in that habitat.

Unlike the more common cool-season grasses, native warm-season grasses provide year-round wildlife cover because they are structurally durable, standing up to heavy snow loads. Quality winter cover increases the winter survival of all wildlife.

Once established, the deep-rooted warm-season grasses are long-lasting, stress-tolerant, low-maintenance plants. Their large root biomass produces increased organic matter in soils and fosters the rapid infiltration of water. The clump-type growth of these grasses provides space for native wildflowers and legumes to add diversity and further improve habitat quality.

According to Erdman, this type of habitat is severely lacking in central Pennsylvania. Erdman supervises habitat work on 14 area game lands and some of the land in Bald Eagle State Park, 80,500 acres in total. Out of all that land, he says that there are only about 1,000 acres of herbaceous openings.

Thinking back to 2010, you might remember that Rep. Mike Hanna and the ClearWater Conservancy favored the transfer of all Rockview land to Penn State. Hanna even went as far as saying, “It’s a done deal” (Penn State gets all of the land). Based on PSU’s stewardship track record (think Circleville farm), I did not see how this could be in the best interest of conservation or the people of Centre County. In my eyes, the university’s land-stewardship record has even deteriorated since then.

Fortunately, after much controversy and a mountain of public pressure, the proposed land disbursement plan changed for the better. In the fall of 2011, the Pennsylvania Game Commission was allowed to purchase the largest chunk of the former Rockview prison property. That agency obtained about 1,211 acres of the 1,827-acre property that had been deemed surplus. The Benner Spring hatchery grounds and the Spring Creek riparian habitat went to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The remainder of the land went to Benner Township and Penn State.

The transformation of much of this property from fallow fields laden with invasives to productive wildlife habitat is amazing. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, in cooperation with Pheasants Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been busy turning the former correctional institution lands into a wildlife paradise. According to Erdman, many more improvements are on the way.

“The Game Commission, Pheasants Forever and NWTF have been working together to enhance herbaceous habitat on SGL 333,” Erdman shared. “The goal of this cooperation is to create landscape-level habitat improvements for many species of wildlife and enhance the hunting experience for all sportsmen and sportswomen.”

The Pennsylvania NWTF donated the herbicide, seed and fertilizer to plant strips of clover and winter wheat surrounding some of the herbaceous openings. According to Erdman, not only does this attract wildlife, but it also serves as a fire break — permitting safe controlled burns of the interior herbaceous openings. Nineteen controlled-burn units have been delineated on SGL 333 and many have already been burned once.

During the past 18 months, the central Pennsylvania chapter of Pheasants Forever has spent $2,450 for habitat improvement on State Game Lands 333, plus additional donated labor. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has added a $500 in-kind donation of seed and sprayer truck usage.

At their recent “Wing Ding” fundraiser, Pheasants Forever chapter president Chip Brown pledged an additional $1,000 for habitat restoration and improvement on SGL 333 during the coming year.

“It’s nice that we have such a great habitat restoration project here in central Pennsylvania and that Pheasants Forever members can see how our chapter puts their money on the ground,” Smith stated. “What’s even better is having excellent project partners. Eric Erdman and the Game Commission are as serious about habitat as we are. These native grassland restorations are not just for pheasants, but for the whole suite of grassland birds, mammals and pollinators.”

Barring an outbreak of avian flu, the PGC will stock a total of 3,010 pheasants on SGL 333 this fall. According to Erdman, this included 70 birds that were stocked on Oct. 9, for the youth hunt that ended yesterday. Approximately 790 pheasants will be stocked this week, prior to the opening of pheasant season on Oct. 24. Then, four in-season stockings will be made, totaling 670 cock birds and 1,250 hens. An additional 230 hens will be released around Christmas.

Putnam, who works for Habitat Forever — a boots-on-the-ground branch of Pheasants Forever — summed up what is happening on SGL 333.

“The best part of my job is to see habitat put on the ground. Whether it be planting seed or mowing invasive species, I love improving habitat for the wildlife of Pennsylvania. It’s wonderful, knowing that people of all ages can enjoy and use what we improve.”