Wild turkeys can’t thrive without proper habitat.
Fortunately for the wily birds, West Virginia has people who are dedicated to creating and maintaining areas of prime turkey habitat, and they’re spending tens of thousands of dollars every year to make it happen.
“What we’re doing is proof that hunters and people from government agencies can work together to do what’s best for wildlife,” said Cully McCurdy, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The NWTF, a nationwide conservation organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of turkey populations, is helping to fund habitat-improvement projects scattered throughout the Mountain State. McCurdy said that from 2011 through 2016, the organization will have spent close to half a million dollars to create food-rich clearings in areas of mature forestland.
“The emphasis is on creating ‘brood range,’ places where young turkeys can thrive until they grow large enough to fend for themselves,” he explained.
Most people believe turkeys fare best in areas with large stands of mature trees. While that’s true for the adults, it’s not true for young turkeys.
“Turkey poults need what we call ‘bugging grounds,’ grassy and brushy areas where they can find plenty of insects to eat,” McCurdy said. “You don’t find many bugs among the tall trees. In areas of the state where the forest is mature, bugging grounds can be pretty scarce.”
A recent study showed that in areas of the Monongahela National Forest, hen turkeys sometimes had to walk their poults five miles to find adequate food for them. The mortality rate for young turkeys was high.
Conditions have started to improve, thanks in large part to cooperation between the NWTF, the State Division of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Division of Forestry.
One of the highest-profile projects has taken place along Middle Mountain in Pocahontas County, one of the very areas where hens were walking their poults to death.
“We call it the Middle Mountain Stewardship Project,” McCurdy said. “It involves 85 acres’ worth of small thinning cuts to create clearings, plus the planting of 41 acres’ worth of wildlife savannas with warm-season grasses. The savannas have fire lines around them, and prescribed fires will be set from time to time to maintain the clearings and keep the habitat vibrant.”
All the proceeds from timber harvested during the cuts was plowed back into habitat creation. McCurdy said the cuts generated roughly $80,000, which covered the lion’s share of the $132,000 project.
“Wildlife managers for the DNR came in and disked the land, limed it, fertilized it and seeded it,” he added. “They did the work on the ground. Mead-Westvaco agreed to buy the timber. It wasn’t a huge moneymaking venture for them, but they did it to assist the Forest Service, the DNR and the NWTF.”
The Middle Mountain project and similar ones throughout the country have made the NWTF the fifth-leading purchaser of timber on national forests nationwide. “The purpose of those sales isn’t to make money; it’s to create habitat,” McCurdy said. “The NWTF is a non-profit organization, so the value that comes off the land goes right back into the land.”
In another Turkey Federation initiative, called the 5-55 Super Fund Drive, the organization has pledged to spend $55,000 a year for West Virginia-based conservation projects. The five-year drive, now in its third year, gets its funding from chapter fund-raising banquets, individual donors and corporate sponsors.
McCurdy said the money is being distributed into four areas.
“We’re spending $20,000 a year over five years for conservation projects such as brood-range development and wildlife openings on public lands; $15,000 a year for purchase of land, public easements, or public access for hunters and fishermen; $15,000 a year for outreach programs such as Women in the Outdoors and Archery in the Schools; and $5,000 a year for national advocacy for hunting and the shooting sports,” he explained.
“So far we’ve spent $36,000 for conservation, which includes habitat projects on Coopers Rock, Calvin Price and Seneca state forests, and on the Stonewall Jackson, Summersville Lake and R.D. Bailey wildlife management areas.”
The money paid for lime, fertilizer and seed to re-plant clearings created from small-scale timber cuts initiated by the DNR and the Division of Forestry.
“The areas’ DNR wildlife managers provide the labor for those projects,” McCurdy said. “We’ve forged a strong partnership with the DNR and with Forestry, and those agencies have made commitments to managing their lands in a way that creates good wildlife habitat. It’s very encouraging what those folks are doing.”
The federation’s other major project had its origins in a $147,000 grant from the Forest Service’s Rural Advisory Committee.
“We’re using that money to refurbish dilapidated brood range on five Monongahela National Forest wildlife management areas: Little River, Cheat, Rimel, Cranberry/Tea Creek/Williams River, and Neola,” McCurdy said.
“Wildlife managers on those five areas were able to get approved 50 acres’ worth of wildlife clearing cuts on each area. The grant will pay for liming and re-seeding. It’s one acre here, two acres there, but those areas are considered to be critical brood habitat. So, over the next three years, we’ll get 250 acres of habitat refurbished.”
McCurdy said most of the money used for those projects will be spent in the communities where the work is done.
“I just got an e-mail from Rob Tallman, the wildlife manager on the Cheat WMA,” he said. “Rob said he’d just picked up 392 50-pound bags of lime and 112 50-pound bags of fertilizer from [a feed store] in Mill Creek. Before these projects are done, they’ll benefit local economies to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Aligning the interests of sportsmen with the interests of state and federal resource agencies isn’t easy. McCurdy said the Turkey Federation is in a unique position to do that.
“We’re an arrow in these agencies’ quiver that helps them meet their management goals,” he said. “The folks in these agencies know their areas better than anyone else. We, with the help of the sportsmen, want to empower them to get things done.”
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.