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National Wild Turkey Federation and NRCS NY Partnership to Deliver Conservation

Doug Little, National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Conservation Field Supervisor (Northeast)

National Wild Turkey Federation logoThe National Wild Turkey Federation has been a proud partner of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in New York and across the country. In early summer 2011 NWTF and NRCS signed a Contribution Agreement that paved the way for NWTF staff to assist with delivery of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) New York/New England Forestry Initiative.

Two wild turkey toms walking through a woodland in autumn.You might ask why NWTF is so concerned with forest management on private lands. There are several reasons. Most of our open space in New York State is private land. And if we are to have a significant impact on wildlife habitats it is vitally important to educate and work with private landowners to encourage active forest management based on recommendations provided by a professional forester.

Take a drive anywhere in the New York and New England states and you will primarily see mature forest land. In areas with working farms and ranches, croplands and pastures will end abruptly at an edge of large trees, referred to as a hard edge. You will be hard-pressed to find significant acres of young forest or areas dominated by thick shrubs. Numerous wildlife species that depend on young forest cover types are in decline. These habitats are established primarily by active forest management and abandonment of fields.

Young forest cover types are continually aging, making their shelf-life for wildlife benefits short lived without maintenance every 15-20 years. These factors make it very difficult to maintain thick cover provided by young forest stands and the wildlife species that depend on them. Typical maintenance includes cutting of scattered mature trees that have grown taller than the shrub layer and is therefore causing the ground layer underneath to be shaded. This causes the shrub layer to thin out from lack of sunlight. Removal of those shade casting trees will provide enough sunlight for the shrub layer to replenish itself.

Wild turkeys in particular are at a 20 year population low in New York State. Several years of poor spring and summer nesting and brood rearing conditions have played a huge role in the decline. Changing habitat across the landscape, particularly increased percent of forest land in the mature age class, is a significant factor in that decline.

Wild turkeys are considered a species of open fields and mature woodlots, but their nesting success hinges on finding quality thick ground cover before spring leaf-out. Those types of nest sites are typically found in recently managed woodlots where treetops are left on the ground after harvest, in grown up fields dominated by shrubs, and other thick cover types that offer cover from ground level to 1-2 foot high.

Hen wild turkeys lay one egg per day in a ground nest (average of 12 eggs in a nest) and begin incubating for 28 days immediately following the last egg being deposited in the nest. Hens and their nests are vulnerable to a wide array of nest predators during that time period, including raccoons, skunks, opossum, fox, snakes, and others. With all of those predators on the prowl during spring nesting season, quality nest habitat scattered throughout the landscape is necessary for wild turkeys to rebound from this population decline. This habitat can only be put on the ground by landowners that choose to provide it through forest management activities.

Forest management is easier said than done. Landowners should always work with a professional forester with appropriate credentials to help with management recommendations. Foresters are able to provide short and long term recommendations based on each landowners goals and objectives. There are programs to assist landowners with receiving such guidance.

The New York Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) - Forestry Initiative (Initiative) is an opportunity for private forestland owners in New York to implement conservation and management practices that will improve health and productivity of their forests and prevent soil erosion. The Initiative is a partnership effort between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Division of Land and Forests, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), and others.  This a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to eligible landowners who are willing to address priority environmental issues by implementing conservation practices.

Owners of non-industrial private forestland or land capable of growing trees may apply for the program. Landowners that do not have a forest management plan for their property may be eligible to receive funding to assist with hiring a private consulting forester certified by USDA-NRCS as a Technical Service Provider (TSP) to draft a management plan.  These plans are referred to by NRCS as Forestry Conservation Activity Plans, or CAP-106 plans.

Landowners that already have a forest management plan, such as a Forest Stewardship Plan drafted by NYS DEC Foresters, a CAP-106 plan established by a Technical Service Provider (TSP), may be eligible for financial assistance to have work done on the ground through the Initiative.  Specific management tasks identified in plans including Forest Stand Improvement and/or Forest Trails and Landings work are considered core practices. Financial assistance is available for these and other practices for eligible landowners that rank high enough for funding after applying to NRCS.

These practices benefit the long term health of your forest lands while providing benefits to wildlife that rely on habitats created by active management. From a wild turkey perspective, a Forest Stand Improvement project that leaves behind scattered tree-tops with a re-seeded forest trail and/or landing provides the ideal combination of quality nesting habitat adjacent to terrific brood rearing cover on the trail where young poults can forage for insects they rely on.