Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. is a simple concept: Hunters, anglers and recreational shooters fund conservation efforts. The circle completes itself by providing plentiful hunting and recreational opportunities for those who support it. It’s a beautiful model that has made North American conservation so successful for more than 100 years. We need healthy habitat to support healthy wild turkey populations, which provides hunting opportunities and funding for more conservation.
But things get a little more complicated and harder to understand when we get into the specific activities necessary to really save the habitat for wild turkeys. We have little or no control over things like weather, disease, annual mast production (acorns, pine seeds, etc.) and even predator/prey population cycles. So what can we, as hunters and NWTF members, do to meet our goal of conserving and enhancing 4 million acres of habitat? Where do we even start? Let’s begin with understanding wild turkeys and what quality habitat really means in your neck of the woods.
Understanding wild turkeys
Wild turkeys have a relatively short lifespan with most adults only surviving three or four years, which means they have to be efficient and prolific poult producers to keep up with the loss. Nearly all adult wild turkey hens will attempt to nest in a given year, and between 30 and 60 percent will be successful in hatching a brood. When conditions are good, they’ll lay eight to 15 eggs. Studies on Eastern wild turkeys say 56 to 73 percent of the poults hatched will not make it through their first two weeks. But in spite of these losses, wild turkeys have the ability to produce lots of offspring to replace losses to things like predation, disease or mortality from inclement weather.
However, carrying capacity ultimately trumps everything else when it comes to wild turkey survival.
What is carrying capacity?
Carrying capacity is the maximum number of animals an environment can support under stable, steady conditions without causing long-term destruction of habitat. An individual animal must find food, cover and water within reasonable proximity to survive on that tract of land. The arrangement and quality of this habitat will ultimately determine how many members of a species can exist on the property. As the habitat is manipulated or permitted to slowly change on its own, the carrying capacity of the area will change. Consequently, the population will respond with an increase or decrease in size.
Ultimately, habitat quality and its availability is what regulate the vast majority of wildlife and wild turkey populations. Wild turkeys tend to track or stay fairly close to the carrying capacity set by their habitat unless an unusual or catastrophic event like severe weather (drought, floods, blizzards) or disease outbreak occurs.
Knowing how to increase carrying capacity for wild turkeys is key to increasing or maintaining their populations. And it's accomplished through managing the right types of habitat.
Understanding turkey habitat
In the majority of the wild turkey's 800 million-acre range, the most critical habitat supports nesting and brood rearing. If we can improve and maintain nesting and brood rearing habitat across the landscape it will significantly increase the carrying capacity and in turn yield more sustainable wild turkey populations.
Fostering good nesting and brood rearing conditions be actively managing the land you hunt through carefully-planned timber harvest and thinning, prescribed fire and permanent openings maintenance and enhancement is one way you can help. Other sound management practices include controlling invasive plants and providing food sources year-round with well-managed food plots and forest openings. All of these practices are vital for sustaining wild turkeys as well as many other game and nongame upland species.
So other than managing your own properties, how can you help save the habitat and keep the hunt going for future generations? It's really pretty simple and you've already started by being an active NWTF member. Your financial contributions and time as a volunteer support the NWTF's habitat initiatives and activities. Most of them are focused at increasing carrying capacity for wild turkeys by to only improving the critical nesting and brood habitat, but also carefully looking at year-round habitat needs like winter food, water availability and harvest potential. With you support these initiatives will sustain upland game species and foster then next generation of hunters. Working toward the same goals, we can make a difference.