Overcoming Habitat Deficits on Public Lands

Spring turkey hunters in Virginia celebrated record success during 2013, but detailed analysis of where those turkeys came from provided disconcerting results.

Predictably, prime habitat on private land yielded the best success. However, state-owned lands such as wildlife management areas, had turkey kill ratios of about one bird for every 500 acres. National forest lands, consisting of 1.8 million acres, had a disturbingly low turkey success ratio of just one bird for every 1,900 acres.

To many Old Dominion hunters, these numbers aren’t surprising. The rugged mountaintops and ridgelines of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests never held as much game as the agriculturally rich Shenandoah Valley and the rolling piedmont and tidewater areas east of the Blue Ridge. Deer and grouse populations there diminished so much over the last 20 to 30 years, many hunters simply gave up. Hunters want to hunt where game is plentiful, but steadily eroding conditions created uninhabitable zones for many bird and mammal species.

 Gary Norman, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Wild Turkey Project leader, said a trending 3 percent decline in turkey harvests in the northern mountains is troubling.

“But, the problem is more widespread than just national forest lands,” he said. “Many of our western counties are showing declines. We can’t ignore the correlations [between lack of successional habitats and the scarcity of game species, such as turkey, grouse and woodcock], and they are significant.”

Norman drew a distinction between the two national forests, noting the northern mountain lands associated with the George Washington National Forest have a much greater contiguous land mass, whereas the Jefferson National Forest is more fragmented with many tracts interspersed with private lands, much of which are agricultural.

Many Jefferson National Forest turkeys have a home range that covers public and private grounds and don’t have to range as far as birds in the George Washington National Forest to find suitable habitat and forage, he explained.  

As Virginia updated its comprehensive wild turkey management plan, stakeholders publicly bemoaned the lack of timber cutting and habitat-management activities on public lands. Some called for trapping and transferring birds to the sparsely inhabited areas. Norman saw that as an unsustainable, temporary solution.

“Even if you take on this very time-consuming, expensive relocation effort, it might not work,” Norman said. “Transferred birds have a lower survival rate [than local birds]. They’re released into unfamiliar surroundings. Putting birds into habitat where existing birds are already struggling doesn’t make much sense.”

Reason for Optimism

Many attribute the habitat situation to an amalgamation of “tree huggers,” environmentalists and anti-hunters that monopolized the ear of lawmakers and Department of the Interior policy makers in recent decades.

As one stakeholder commented about the emerging management plan, “Hunting interests have stood back and let the environmentalists eat our lunch on this issue, even when we have had science on our side. The need for new-growth habitat should get more attention in the plan with some specifics on how this can be accomplished.”

Recent land management practices, though, combined with an emphasis on creative partnerships that unite state, federal and nongovernmental organizations, have many biologists upbeat about the future.

Dr. Carol Croy has been the George Washington and Jefferson national forests’ wildlife biologist for the last decade. This year’s update to the forest management plans included detailed studies of 270 wildlife species classified as threatened or endangered, sensitive, locally rare or of public interest. Public interest species include many game species.

Researchers found 109 of these 270 species — all of which use the forest — need new growth habitat for their entire life cycle needs.

An additional 133 species need a mix of new growth habitat and mature habitat within close proximity. Only 14 species could cope with mature forests for all life-cycle needs.  

“That’s a wakeup call,” Croy told a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative group as the plan was coming together. A video of her presentation is available on YouTube.   

She explained that right now, about one-third of the forest lends itself to timber management. This is partly due to significant barriers to timber management, including congressionally designated wilderness areas, where timber harvest is prohibited. Croy said the Forest Service often has varying levels of influence over how those restrictions get designated in the laws. 

Croy said silviculture land-disturbance tools, such as select cutting, clear cutting (especially in areas infested with gypsy moths), pre-commercial and commercial timber thinning are vital. Grouse especially need pre-commercial thinning, which gives the birds an additional 10 years to use an area.

Croy said silviculture techniques have been employed on nearly 35,000 acres during her tenure.  

Grassland and shrubbery management, a second management tool, is important for turkeys. About 20,000 acres of such habitat currently exists in the two forests she helps manage.

Croy also favors prescribed fire, especially in areas where other timber management options aren’t possible. Nearly 90,000 acres are in blocks designated for prescribed burn treatment, and they burn about 20,000 acres annually.

“It’s always good not to rely on just one tool in the box,” she said. “Each tool creates different kinds of habitat, and turkeys use them all. The Forest Service is a multiple-use agency, so the service generally likes to use a variety of management practices.”

She said fire keeps a landscape consistent for species that need that year after year. It doesn’t shift around, as does a timber management strategy. Plus, fire also promotes growth of plants, such as blueberries and other mast crops, that grow close to the ground and are favored foods for everything from turkeys to bears.

Al Bourgeois is one of the VDGIF district wildlife biologists who works habitat issues in partnership with the Forest Service.

He explained Virginia has enjoyed success in getting habitat projects, such as brood habitat and insect foraging habitat on both national forests and state wildlife management areas, funded through NWTF Virginia’s Hunting Heritage Super Fund.    

“We’re also using funds from the sale of National Forest Stamp hunting permits, which are specifically designated for wildlife and habitat benefit,” Bourgeois said.

Partnerships are Key

The state and the NWTF have a cooperative agreement that facilitates land management activities. The agreement provides small contractor and support work related to clearing trees and brush, site preparation, seeding and more. Patrick “Cully” McCurdy, NWTF regional biologist for Virginia and West Virginia, coordinates the work. They also maintain working relationships with other conservation organizations, such as the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Quality Deer Management Association.

“The NWTF has been most helpful,” Bourgeois said. “Together, with Cully and the various ranger district biologists, we assess what type of habitat work is needed. Then, we build that into our budget.”

McCurdy explained NWTF lines up contractors to promptly do the work, and then bills VDGIF for reimbursement.

“We have short windows of opportunity, based on seasons and weather, to complete some types of habitat work,” Bourgeois said.

Unfortunately, demand outstrips resources, Bourgeois said.

“We only go into areas we’re allowed to manage, some 450,000 acres. Realistically, we don’t have the people or money to work in every area,” he said.

He praised hunters and nongovernmental organizations rallying to influence public policy in terms of public land habitat management. “We shouldn’t have one viewpoint dominate the whole forest. You can’t go on emotion. You need to go with science. You need a managed forest. Hopefully, we’re going to a create wildlife habitat mosaic,” Bourgeois said.  

Croy said VDGIF and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources were, at one time, “lone voices in the wilderness crying out that [new growth] habitat is important.”

“I’m fortunate to be with a forest that’s proactive, has an outstanding forest supervisor (Tom Speaks), who is also a hunter, and a staff who understands disturbance regimens and the need for them,” she said.

The new forest management plan has diverse target outcomes for habitat depending on the management area. For example, each forest now has areas designated where the goal is to maximize habitat for deer, while other areas are targeted for small game, such as ruffed grouse or turkey. Even bears get a special nod.

“We work with state agencies and many different groups to outline objectives for the next 10 to 15 years,” Croy said. “Partnerships such as those with DGIF and NWTF are the key. Open woodlands, at least in the Appalachian system, are something we really need.”

Croy said she shares details of successful programs and partnerships at the Forest Service regional level and through interagency groups such as the Southeastern and Northeastern associations of fish and wildlife agencies.

The efforts going on west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains could serve as a role model for other areas with huge tracts of public land and people uniting to Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.

To see the proposed revision of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests management plans, go to www.fs.usda.gov/detail/gwj/landmanagement/.

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