Each step in the soft, moist soil brought the savvy hunter a couple of feet closer to the thundering gobbler 200 yards ahead. The sound of rushing water muffled any accidental crunch of leaves or snapping sticks. The river bottom was this bird’s home for at least two years, and morning after morning he would aggressively announce his presence before pitching down and working his way through a thick mix of cottonwoods and native vegetation. It had been a good routine, until opening day.
In every state across the country, riparian corridors offer habitat that can be ideal for turkeys. I say can be, because it’s not always the case. Sometimes land management and habitat improvements are necessary to maximize potential. Thankfully, the NWTF regularly partners with government agencies and other like-minded conservation organizations to improve habitat on public hunting lands.
If you’re not familiar with the term “riparian,” it simply refers to land adjacent to rivers, streams and other moving bodies of water. Riparian areas include floodplains and floodplain buffers. They offer diverse habitats, which can be moist and swampy, or dry and sandy, depending on rainfall, topography, soil composition and a host of factors. Riparian areas are often forested, varying in density from thick to open.
When you consider the essential needs of turkeys — food, water, cover and nesting sites — riparian areas are rich with all four. It’s water that defines a riparian area, so go ahead and check that box. Insects, seeds and berries are usually found in abundance. The moist soil produces dense vegetation for ample security, and all kinds of brush and fallen trees are available for nesting.
In Missouri, there is an abundance of public land along our many riverways. A few favored turkey hunting spots close to home are large sections of public land along the Missouri River. These areas are remote and most easily accessed by boat, which alleviates a lot of hunting pressure.
Improving habitat for turkeys also bolsters habitat for countless other species. Many of these are nongame species. Unless they are categorized in a critical status, many such species often don’t command the financial resources to fund habitat improvements on their own. Illinois is one state working closely with the NWTF to put dollars to work in ways that benefits turkeys and other critters.
BETTER HABITAT, BETTER HUNTING
John Burk, NWTF’s district biologist covering Illinois and Missouri, said, “Each state has a wildlife action plan that justifies the funding made available to them via the Fish and Wildlife Service through Pitman-Robertson [Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act] funding. The purpose of these plans is to address the needs of species of greatest conservation concern while also keeping common species common.”
Each state has its own version of these plans, and Illinois divided the state into seven individual campaigns, one of which is the Forest and Woodlands Campaign.
“The NWTF is the lead partner in implementing strategies identified in the Forest and Woodlands Campaign portion of the plan,” Burk continued. “Our Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. Illinois State Plan dovetails with the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan and focuses primarily on open woodland restoration. Our plan identifies conserving 175,000 acres by the year 2023, and we are on track to deliver this through cooperative projects with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other key partners.”
Asked to name a few projects NWTF is working on in partnership with Illinois DNR, Burk shared several examples of true collaboration with strong partners.
“NWTF has worked with the Forest Service, Ducks Unlimited and Illinois DNR in developing the 3,700-acre Oakwood Bottoms Area near Murphysboro,” he said. “When flooded during the fall and winter, it is a prime migration stop offering excellent waterfowl hunting. During the late spring and early summer, when it’s not flooded, the area offers good turkey hunting and superior brood-rearing habitat.”
A section of the property is named “Turkey Bayou Campground,” a unique moniker that illustrates why it’s a perfect place for NWTF and DU to come together and improve multi-species habitat.
“We have conducted 89 acres of timber stand improvement matched by Illinois DNR with 787 acres of burning at Ramsey Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area,” Burk said. “We’ve conducted 50 acres of TSI matched by DNR with 687 acres of burning at Forbes Lake State Park. And we purchased for Illinois DNR District 5 a drip torch and chain saw that was used on 1,700 acres of burning on District 5 lands.”
The private-public partnership between NWTF and Illinois DNR continues to result in better habitat for turkeys, which means better turkey hunting for all of us.
Jennifer Lesko, district forester for the Illinois DNR, said, “I wrote the short grant proposal for the money to buy the drip torch and chainsaw John mentioned. We have since completed three burns over 200 acres at Sam Dale Lake and are in the process of doing the TSI.”
Lesko said the property is known as a good turkey hunting site but was starting to become too dense and closed in for good habitat.
“The burns have helped push back the nonnative plants and allowed wildlife more room to move around,” she noted. “The timber stand improvement cutting has already led to a huge increase in light, openness and understory vegetation. Future management will continue to improve the habitat allowing oaks to reach the canopy and produce more acorns.”
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LAND PARTNERSHIPS
NWTF partnerships are improving lands on both sides of the Mississippi River. Dave Hoover, small game coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said, “Partnerships are critical for state conservation agencies to get meaningful work accomplished on both public and private lands. The NWTF has a long history of partnering to get conservation work done. The NWTF Super Fund has provided important funding to several restoration projects here in Missouri, as well as assisting with equipment acquisition, particularly as it relates to prescribe burning — a critically important practice for improving habitat for turkeys.”
Riparian habitat work being accomplished through NWTF partnerships is enhancing public land and hunting opportunities for turkeys across America. It’s also benefiting other game species such as bobwhite quail, rabbits and squirrels, as well as many nongame species. NWTF members and supporters can feel good knowing their dollars are being stretched through partnerships to improve riparian habitats where they hunt and enjoy the great outdoors.
— Brandon Butler