Golf courses

The Audubon Golf Course – A New Kind Of Wildlife Sanctuary

Greg Matthews
Written by Greg Matthews

The environment is under pressure like never before. Development and sprawl, coupled with a population explosion, is placing ever-increasing demands on natural resources such as water, timber, energy, and land. Wildlife are left with fewer and fewer places to turn to as these demands encroach on their native habitats. Golf courses have emerged as a great opportunity to help solve this difficult problem, providing valuable wildlife habitat in a sea of shrinking green space. Transforming a golf course into a wildlife sanctuary isn’t just about wildlife, though. It is an opportunity to improve the quality of the course, create job opportunity, and foster positive community relations. Most important of all, its protecting environmental quality, ensuring that our precious and valuable natural resources will continue to sustain us well into the future.

A Diversity of Ecosystems

From forests to deserts, mountains to valleys, wetlands to meadows, the landscape, and our golf courses, are a mosaic that supports an incredible diversity of wildlife. This diversity of ecosystems and wildlife presents an exciting opportunity for golf courses. Every course has the chance to make a significant contribution to the environment given the broad range of habitats that can be found throughout the different regions. The special role the golf course can play as a wildlife sanctuary will depend upon its location.

Understanding Wildlife Habitat

Before starting on habitat enhancement projects, it’s important to understand the basic needs of wildlife so they can be incorporated into the golf course landscape. Wildlife of all kinds require suitable habitat to survive. Habitat is comprised of four basic components: space, food, cover, and water. A habitat area may be a few square feet for a spider, or a few thousand acres for a bear. This space requirement is different for all species, but the area must include each of the four basic habitat components or wildlife cannot exist.

Working with Available Space

Whether a small nine hole course or a large resort with hundreds of acres, space is the one component of habitat over which managers may have the least control. However, by manipulating the other habitat components – food, cover, and water – the amount of space wildlife need may be less critical.

When one considers the kinds of wildlife the course may attract, managers must remember to think beyond the boundaries of the golf course. Surrounding land uses will have an impact on the types of wildlife they can attract. Even if the course doesn’t represent a large acreage, the combination of the property and adjacent natural areas may add up to sizable habitat.

Conversely, if the course is surrounded by housing or commercial development, certain species will not be attracted to the course no matter how much the habitat components are manipulated  (although the course will play a critical role in providing valuable green space for local and migrating wildlife).

Keeping this “big picture” in mind, the key to successful wildlife management is properly using and enhancing the space that is available.


Selecting Landscape Vegetation for its Food Value

When planting to attract wildlife, providing food is often the first activity that comes to mind. Food resources can be manipulated by simply setting up a bird feeder or adopting a landscape plan that includes native plants of high food value to a variety of wildlife species. Choose flowers that produce nectar; trees, shrubs and vines that bear fruit; or plants bearing nuts or seed that birds and other wildlife eat.

Managers must also keep in mind that insects are a vital food source for many birds and mammals. Mowing interrupts the food supply. By designating out-of-play portions of the course as no-mow or minimal-mow zones,  they not only cut down on maintenance time, but also provide cover for wildlife. These unmowed areas are also ideal habitats for beneficial insects.

At Morro Bay Golf Course in California, Superintendent Tom Massey implemented a project to protect the Monarch butterfly on his course. Morro Bay is home to one the largest wintering populations of Monarch butterflies in California. Each year, 25-30,000 butterflies descend on the golf course to spend the winter in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Working with Dr. Kingston Leong from California Polytechnic State University, Massey took steps to keep the climatic conditions of the site favorable for Monarchs, which rely on the sun for warmth and to raise their body temperature in order to fly.

Massey and his crew pruned eucalyptus trees on the southern border to increase the amount of sunlight that enters the site, and planted a windrow of Monterey cypress trees to protect the site from prevailing northwesterly winds. Equally important, Massey gave the site additional protection by minimizing golf course maintenance in the area and restricting pesticide use. Morro Bay Golf Course’s conservation efforts were highly successful, and golfer response was overwhelmingly positive – the ladies’ club now holds an annual Monarch Butterfly Tournament.

Providing Cover – Naturalizing Out-of-Play Areas

Cover provides protection for animals to carry out life functions, such as breeding, nesting, resting, feeding, and travel. For instance, often animals will only come to food if it is in aprotected place. Animals seeking food or water use taller grasses and woodlands as safe travel corridors. Enhancing the out-of-play areas of the golf course presents an excellent opportunity to provide the kind of cover wildlife need.

Managers must identify major out-of-play natural areas on the course, such as woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands. Minimizing disturbance to these areas is essential for giving wildlife cover that offers them a degree of protection. These natural areas are to be designated as no-maintenance zones, and should be enhanced or expanded where possible. Naturalizing out-of-play areas of the course that are currently maintained with turf should also be considered. Converting these turf areas to valuable natural habitats by planting perennial grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, or trees will benefit not only wildlife, but the golf course as well, by allowing your maintenance staff to devote more of their time to maintaining in-play turf areas, such as greens, tees, and fairways.

Crystal Springs Golf Club, also in California, originally irrigated 120 acres of their 200-acre golf course. Course maintenance staff removed 50 acres of irrigation, leaving 70 acres of irrigated turf. They have since undertaken a variety of naturalization projects to enhance the remaining 130 acres of their course as wildlife habitat.

Dead trees (snags) also provide important shelter and nesting sites for both mammals and birds. When snags pose no safety hazard to golfers or course maintenance staff, consider leaving them in place. If the course has few dead trees, nest boxes are a good alternative. These bird houses serve as nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds. By creating more nesting sites, the breeding success of these birds is increased.

Enhancing Water Features

The availability of water is often the most important factor in attracting wildlife. How water features are managed on the course – lakes, ponds, and streams – will play a crucial role in providing a sanctuary for wildlife. In place of managed turf to the water’s edge, aquatic vegetation should be planted along out-of-play shorelines. Shoreline and emergent plants provide food and cover for wildlife, and add aesthetic diversity to your course. Aquatic plants also help to oxygenate the water and reduce algae blooms.  Banks of streams, creeks, and rivers should also be planted with erosion-preventing vegetation. At Spyglass Hill Golf Course in famous Pebble Beach, forested areas have been left on at least one side of every pond to provide cover and allow for easy access to freshwater sources for wildlife without forcing them to travel across open fairways. In out of play areas of the ponds, a variety of native grasses have been planted along shorelines and allowed to grow to their full height. These water feature projects enhance the overall wildlife value of Spyglass Hill’s 75 acres of Monterey pine and coastal live oak forest, and 20 acres of coastal sand dunes, and the number of birds and mammals on the course has increased dramatically as a result.

Arranging Habitat Elements and Linking with Corridors

When transforming a golf course into a wildlife sanctuary, managers should always consider how animals will interact with course elements. Are major habitat areas linked to water features with corridors of tall grasses or trees that offer cover, or are wildlife forced to cross open fairways to travel from natural areas to water features? Have out-of-play areas of the course been naturalized to facilitate wildlife movement between the major habitat zones? Have water features been planted with aquatic vegetation to provide food and cover? Do native plants in landscaping and naturalization projects have food value for wildlife?

By taking into account the four basic elements of habitat – space, food, cover, and water – and ensuring that all four are accessible to wildlife, managers can transform their course into a sanctuary that will attract a diversity of species. Starting with small, manageable projects. Naturalizing one area at time, and expanding efforts as time progresses. Wildlife will soon realize the valuable habitat offered by the course, and the sanctuary will become a success.

This article originally appeared in California Fairways, as well as TGM No. 51. Audubon International, a non-profit organization, is dedicated to educating, assisting and inspiring millions of people from all walks of life to protect and sustain the land, water, wildlife, and natural resources around them. Together in partnership with TGM, an Argentina-based Spanish-language magazine, Audubon International is working to bring environmental management information in Spanish to golf course and turfgrass managers, as well as others working in the green industry.

For more information: Audubon International Internet:

About the author

Greg Matthews

Greg Matthews

Greg is a graduate of the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara. An avid golfer, Greg has written many essays on sustainable golf courses and environmental stewardship programs.

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