Spring seep management for wild turkeys and other wildlife
Springs and seeps provide open, snow-free areas during the winter months that wildlife use as feeding sites. Seeps occur where ground water flows to the soil surface. Springs flow from a clearly defined opening, and seeps form a saturated area where water percolates slowly through the soil. Small springs and seeps are so similar that we refer to both as spring seeps. Water flowing from spring seeps is true ground water and not surface runoff, so the water temperature remains relatively constant year round. In the Mid-Atlantic states, ground water temperatures range from 50 to 60 degrees F; temperatures are slightly cooler in New England and warmer in the South. Most spring seeps are true wetlands because they flow all year and form channels that connect with larger stream systems.
Spring seeps are easiest to locate during the coldest or driest times of the year when temporary streams that carry surface runoff are either frozen or dry. You can identify spring seeps at any time by taking the water temperature at the source. Seep temperatures will always remain between 50 and 60 degrees F, while surface runoff will be within a few degrees of air temperature.
Spring seeps provide winter habitat for wild turkeys and other wildlife in the Appalachian Mountain region but are also important in other areas. When the snow cover is deep, spring seeps provide critical feeding areas for wild turkeys and other animals. Warm ground water flowing from the seep melts snow and exposes a rich source of seeds, green vegetation, insects and other invertebrates. In the West Virginia mountains when snow depths exceed 4 inches, about 85% of turkey feeding activity occurs in spring seeps and the small streams connecting them.
Spring seeps provide much more than winter habitat for wild turkeys. Spring seeps provide habitat for aquatic species, plus food and a year-round water supply for many terrestrial birds and mammals. The moist environment around seeps often supports a rich community of grasses and succulent forage plants, and spring seeps are one of the first areas where vegetation emerges in early spring. This early food source is available at a critical time when most other plants are dormant, and turkey, bear, deer and other species recovering from the stress of winter eagerly seek it. Spring seeps are essential breeding areas for frogs, salamanders, invertebrates such as fairy shrimp and crayfish, and a variety of aquatic insects.
Land management plans should include seeps because of their importance to wildlife. In forested areas, a relatively intensive inventory is usually required to locate these valuable wetlands because individual seeps are difficult to locate due to their size. Management for seeps should be coordinated with management on the rest of the property. State and federal laws protecting wetlands regulate some management activities related to seeps. State forest management or wetland laws usually govern forestry practices by establishing buffer zones or limiting the amount of timber cutting in and around wetlands. Enlarging or digging out seeps may be regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act of 1972 and possibly by state laws. Because of these regulations, it is best to seek technical assistance from state foresters, USDA Extension Service agents, Natural Resource Conservation Service personnel or private consultants when developing management plans.
Landowners generally manage spring seeps as feeding areas for wild turkeys because they provide a year-round source of green forage, tubers, tree seeds, insects and aquatic invertebrates. Some of these foods are more abundant in seeps than in surrounding uplands, and during winter, seeps may be the only source of these foods.
The general approach to management depends on your goals. For example, managing winter habitat in mountainous areas involves treating seeps on southern exposures where snow melts most rapidly. Work should be concentrated on lower slopes where seeps are abundant and turkeys congregate during winter. Treatment areas should be small — just large enough to include the snow-free area. The best winter range may have as many as 30 to 50 seeps per square mile. Improving year-round habitat might include all seeps and combining seep and streamside management zones.
The treatment of individual seeps will depend on conditions around them. Large seeps surrounded by mature saw timber often provide turkey food in abundance. Trees usually do not grow in the saturated area, so enough sunlight reaches the ground to stimulate forage production. If the trees around the seeps are oaks or other good seed producers, it is hard to improve the situation for wildlife. Seeps in this condition need to be protected from road building activities and heavy equipment during timber harvest operations, and cutting will usually be limited to trees that are unlikely to survive much longer. In contrast, most spring seeps in smaller timber stands are crowded with trees and so shaded that they have little undergrowth. Careful thinning can usually increase forage, browse and seed production.
GETTING THE WORK DONE
Managing seeps for wild turkeys can improve habitat for many species, yield income from the sale of wood or provide a great source of firewood. For landowners with large tracts and numerous seeps, habitat improvement can usually be accomplished as part of a larger timber sale — one reason for including seep management as part of your overall management plan. The best opportunities occur when there is a market for small diameter, low-value material such as pulp, firewood and chips. Habitat improvements, such as cutting non-merchantable trees around seeps can be carried out in conjunction with a larger sale, and stumpage prices reduced to cover the cost.
Landowners can girdle large non-merchantable trees, and leave them as snags or fell and limb them to reduce slash. Left in place, these larger logs provide cover for wildlife.
Spring seeps are small, unique wetlands that provide valuable habitat for many wildlife species. The small size of spring seeps necessitates that their management be coordinated with that of the surrounding land. Thinning can enhance most spring seeps for wild turkeys in younger saw timber stands. In open areas, enhancements may include planting, fencing, cutting, mowing or burning to slow succession. Improving seeps for wild turkeys does not seem to conflict with the needs of other wildlife. In fact, spring seeps and streamside management zones should be considered opportunity areas for providing key elements of wildlife habitat — mast, forage, browse, den trees, snags and down woody material. Providing these habitat elements will represent some lost opportunity for timber production, but these costs are minor and benefit wildlife. — William M. Healy and Mary Jo Caselena
This is an edited and revised article taken from the NWTF Wildlife Bulletin. — Eds.