Collaborative Strategies on Indiana’s Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge

Many NWTF state chapters across the country have established NWTF license plate funds that contribute directly to habitat enhancement projects in their respective states. Contributing to one’s local wildlife habitat has never been easier — for a small fee, you get an exclusive, state-specific NWTF license plate for your vehicle, and those additional funds help proliferate and manage wild turkey populations and enhance habitat for many other game and nongame species.

The success of the NWTF license plate fund is no exception in Indiana, either. The NWTF Indiana State Chapter and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service matched funds to treat nonnative and invasive species on 400 acres of roadways and in wildlife openings of the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, a 50,000-acre NWR operated by the FWS in southeastern Indiana and Indiana’s largest NWR.

“Since the inception of the license plate program, the Indiana State Chapter that administers the revenue and use of the funds, has invested roughly $400,000 toward acquisitions of lands now open to public hunting and conservation projects throughout the state,” said Ryan Boyer, NWTF district biologist. “The impact has exceeded more than 11,000 acres conserved and more than 4,500 acres of access opened up in the state since 2012, and this doesn’t even include all the acres accomplished with funding support from the Super Fund.”  

Controlling tall fescue and other invasive species has enhanced brood habitat for wild turkeys on the Big Oaks NWR and contributed to the overall health of the forest, but the treatment was also part of a highly-prioritized FWS Midwestern pollinator habitat restoration project.

“The USFWS, along with many agency partners, and the NWTF have identified the importance of pollinator habitat for wildlife and people,” Boyer said. “These areas provide diverse vegetative structure and support a diverse number of wildlife species while providing direct and indirect benefits to humans.

“Much of the work we do is focused on trying to improve productivity, or more simply put, supporting management that results in putting more turkeys on the ground. Areas good for pollinators are often made up of native grasses and have an abundance of forbs or wildflower species. Ideally, you have a mixture of species that come into bloom at different times of the growing season to encourage pollinator and wildlife use throughout the summer months. These areas attract and support an abundance of insects that provide a protein-rich food source for hens and poults. This protein is vital to hens for the production of eggs prior to laying, and it is critical for the growth and development of poults, especially when survivability is lowest during the first 14 days after hatch. These areas provide food and, in many cases, cover from predators as well.”

The success of the wild turkey on the Big Oaks NWR is a testament to the shared habitat enhancement techniques for pollinators and turkeys. Due to the work between the NWTF and FWS,  the wildlife refuge is thriving and is comprised of a great balance of mature and young forests, creating high productivity rates for turkey, quail and pollinators and giving Indianans great outdoor recreation opportunities, including an NWTF youth turkey hunt, Boyer said.

“This work is ongoing and planned throughout the next several years,” he added. “We plan to build on this work and support and move funds to help improve more areas on Big Oaks.”

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