Enhancement of the Central Appalachian Mountains focal landscape habitat is at the core of work NWTF wildlife biologists and partners are incorporating in the Virginias.
A quick study of any detailed population map of the eastern United States shows that the Central Appalachian Mountains focal landscape is a significant oasis amid the ever-building wave of humanity washing over this part of the nation. The Central Appalachians are part of the broader area the NWTF designates as the Colonial Forests, one of the “Bix Six” emphasis areas for wildlife conservation.
Nearly 113 million people on the East Coast are within an easy day’s drive of the Central Appalachians. Enhancing this landscape’s habitat to improve the carrying capacity for wildlife is critical, said the NWTF’s Cully McCurdy, especially as people steadily encroach on wild places and transform them from rural to suburban. McCurdy, NWTF district biologist for Virginia and West Virginia, calls the Central Appalachian Mountains one of the most biologically diverse landscapes on the planet.
“This is due to the high percentage of forested land and diverse wildlife habitat, as well as the clean water and the karst topography, with its rich bedrock, caves, underground streams and more,” McCurdy said.
Virginia and West Virginia have massive slices of the public land holdings in this focal landscape — more than 3 million acres. West Virginia’s 1.4 million acres of public land includes the Monongahela National Forest that covers 899,000 acres. Virginia has more than 2 million acres open to outdoors enthusiasts. The largest chunks come from the 1.8 million acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
These mountain regions, steeped in American folklore, traditionally supported bountiful populations of wild game. But, as is well documented, habitat quality deteriorates as forested landscapes mature. A lack of active management on the landscape contributes to the decline. The NWTF and a host of partners are working to address these habitat issues in the Central Appalachians.
McCurdy said much of the effort is focused on public lands; that’s where most of the partnership opportunities reside, including some due to staffing and budgetary challenges at state and federal agencies. Other partnership prospects for improving public lands are present in programs funded by the most recent Farm Bill legislation and managed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
McCurdy gave a rundown of the partnerships and some of the specific programs.
Under a three-year agreement with West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources, the NWTF is administering $300,000 of that agency’s funds, helping to provide wildlife management activities, sportsmen access and control of nonnative invasive plants. Much of the initial work focuses on developing access on 32,000 newly acquired acres, expanding existing wildlife management areas or creating new WMAs.
McCurdy said West Virginia’s state chapter committed a $20,000 annual match over the three-year agreement.
The multi-year National Forestry Initiative partnership with the NRCS has the NWTF hiring 24 private lands forester positions nationwide. Southern West Virginia will benefit from one of those hires. McCurdy said this forester will help landowners develop forest and wildlife management plans and programs, and take advantage of cost-share incentives.
“We’re also fiscally administering a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant in partnership with the American Bird Conservancy, and West Virginia DNR and Division of Forestry that employs a two-year Outreach Forester,” McCurdy said. “This forester is employed by the bird conservancy and works within the Greenbrier Valley Watershed, contacting landowners and complementing efforts of partner biologists focused on cerulean and golden-winged warbler habitat improvements.”
Stamp of Success
In Virginia, the NWTF is in the ninth year of an agreement, extended every three years, with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to administer funds derived from the sale of national forest stamps. Stamp proceeds typically fund projects related to wildlife and habitat improvements, and access within the Washington and Jefferson National Forests. McCurdy said the NWTF procures the goods and services related to these projects.
“The agreement has expanded in recent years to administer federal wildlife restoration funds — funds derived from hunting and fishing license sales — to complete projects on state-owned WMAs or projects administered by the fisheries section of the VDGIF,” McCurdy said.
To date, the NWTF has administered more than $1.25 million under this agreement, McCurdy noted.
He also pointed to the Wallace Marshall Stewardship Project on the USDA Forest Service’s North River Ranger District. This project, signed in 2014 and located along the Cowpasture River in Bath County, consists of a multitude of tasks, including building firebreaks, enhancing wetlands, constructing ponds, improving riparian buffers, converting ground cover to native warm season grasses and more.
McCurdy said the NWTF Virginia State Chapter dedicates $60,000 annually for work in The Old Dominion.
Consistent habitat issues are addressed across much of the work in both states, among them the need for varying stages of forest maturity. Wild turkeys aren’t the only beneficiaries. Ruffed grouse, woodcock, deer, songbirds, pollinator species and more also benefit from forest management.
“The number of acres cut annually on the Monongahela and George Washington and Jefferson Forests has reduced significantly in recent years and falls well below forest plan targets,” McCurdy said. “And, since a significant amount of forested land is privately owned, cost programs promoted through partnership with the NRCS will encourage landowners, hunters and nonhunters alike, to manage their property to create more diverse habitats.”
Another habitat goal in the Central Appalachians is to maintain or improve existing habitat, especially brood-rearing range or “bugging” areas.
“Many wildlife clearings created in the heyday of active forest management in the 1970s and ‘80s have deteriorated in value,” McCurdy said. “Significant efforts are made annually to refurbish these openings by applying lime, fertilizer and reseeding to increase the value to wildlife.” McCurdy added that several hundred acres of wildlife clearings of varying size and forest roads are mowed annually to support use as wild turkey brood range.
McCurdy, for one, extols the NWTF’s role in the partnerships. He explained that the work of NWTF volunteers and their fundraising efforts enables the organization to pay for needed and desired wildlife habitat work up front, later obtaining reimbursement from partners.
“We have near-constant collaboration with Forest Service ranger district biologists and wildlife technicians and the [Virginia] DGIF biologists,” he said. “I correspond regularly to ensure budget guidelines are followed and that habitat work is completed in the most efficient way possible. This is vital to the success of our partnerships.
Our state agency technical committee members in both states are key contacts for collaboration and direct liaison. They provide a clearinghouse where state and federal wildlife professionals can meet and share ideas, research, funding opportunities and effective R3 (recruit, retain, reactivate) efforts. Plus, their accessibility to volunteers builds a strong partnership and encourages the membership to take ownership in projects.”
Beyond the financial management and technical support work, McCurdy touts the NWTF’s ability to support and promote the science behind proven wildlife management practices, including defending wildlife policy, legislation and funding, and working media and outreach avenues to help partners tell their stories.
McCurdy said the good news is spring harvest data since 2010 suggests the wild turkey population is stable over the focal landscape. While human population growth pressures will likely increase, he believes that the ongoing work will help sustain or even improve the scenario.
“By working together, supporting our mission, we can continue to make a difference in this important region,” McCurdy said.