At the heart of the NWTF Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative is a goal to conserve or enhance 4 million acres of critical wildlife habitat. To effectively manage this, the NWTF divided the United States into six distinct geographical regions called America’s Big Six of Wildlife Conservation.
Learn about America’s Crossroads. The area covers a wide swath of the Midwest and the Upper Midwest, and Jason Lupardus, the NWTF’s conservation field supervisor for the Midwest, oversees many of the projects that are addressing the critical habitat needs of the region.
Lupardus explained, “What we have done for each region is look at which areas of the landscape need our help. In the America’s Crossroads region, we are focusing on improving water quality, improving forest health and restoring grasslands. By focusing on these three critical habitat needs, we can direct our resources toward mission-specific projects that help a wide variety of wildlife species.”
Saving Oak Savannas and Woodlands
One important habitat type that used to be common in the region was the oak savanna, but Lupardus said oak savanna forests are now extremely rare. “We have lost more than 99 percent of this forest type, which is unfortunate when you consider how important this type of forest is [to the region’s ecology].” The oak savanna is the transitional habitat between open grasslands and the woodland forest.
A big reason we no longer see oak savannas is because this type of forest is largely dependent on fire to keep the landscape in check.
“If you look back several hundred years, wildfires were the norm,” Lupardus said. “Forest fires would sweep through an area about every two to 15 years. The Native Americans even used fire to manage the forest.
Established oaks and hickories are largely fire tolerant, so when fire is introduced, they survive but many competitive species do not. The lack of fire in recent times — due to fire suppression and infrequent use of prescribed fire — has allowed other trees to take over the forest.
To restore this vital habitat, NWTF and its partners are working to plant trees, conduct timber management, use prescribed fire and a variety of other targeted management practices.
“The oak trees and the ground cover in these managed forests provide food and cover for deer, turkeys and a host of other wildlife. We all know how important acorns are to wildlife. Turkeys, other birds and deer all feed on them,” Lupardus said.
“The great thing about these projects is that for every dollar the NWTF raises, we leverage about $6 through the help of various partners,” he explained. “That is great news for all of our members who donate to the NWTF and who want to help save and create better habitat. Every dollar they donate is being multiplied greatly, so everyone, especially the wildlife, benefits.”
Improving the Prairie
“A native prairie might not look like much to us, but it does a lot for wildlife like turkeys,” Lupardus said. “Native prairie grasses provide great nesting habitat for turkeys, because turkeys can easily hide a nest in the tall grass. The same grasses also allow the hens and their poults to feed on insects and hide from predators,” Lupardus said.
To the untrained eye, all grass may look the same, but Lupardus says many grasses and vegetation found in fields and prairies in America’s Crossroads aren’t good for rearing poults. “Over time, many prairies have been taken over by invasive plant species or planted with nonnative grasses. In most cases, the vegetation is much thicker and shorter than native grasses, so it isn’t very easy for turkeys to walk through. Since it doesn’t grow as tall, predators, such as foxes and coyotes, can see the turkeys from a distance. Native grasses and forbs, however, provide structure and height to prevent four-legged and avian predators from easily seeing a flock.”
Old-fashioned elbow grease is helping the NWTF restore prairies in this area.
“Often, we kill the vegetation on the top and then use a disk or a plow to disturb the top several inches of the soil to expose the natural seed bank to the sun. What is amazing is there are many native plant species that have seeds that will remain viable for 80 to 100 years. Once we expose them to the sunlight, they take off and start growing again,” Lupardus said.
Improving Water Quality
Water quality is very important within the America’s Crossroads region. “Streams and waterways need our help,” Lupardus said. “Over time, for example, many trees have been removed along a water’s edge, allowing more sunlight to reach the water. The water temperature rises, which isn’t good for native fish species like trout that require cold water and lots of oxygen. Maintaining stream-side management zones improves this. Cover near the edge of a stream also is important for wildlife that feed and drink at the edge.”
Some of the NWTF’s projects remove invasive trees and plants that aren’t good for the landscape and have choked out native species. “When we remove these plants, we replant with native species that will provide cover for the stream. Every project is a little different, but the goal is always the same: We want to bring the water quality up. Every animal [including us] depends on water, so we focus much of our attention on projects to improve it.”
Creating borders along field edges also helps protect and restore waterways. These projects help wildlife and streams simultaneously.
“Runoff from fields can bring sediment and [unwanted] nutrients to a stream. These, in turn, promote algae growth. Field borders composed of tall grasses will stop runoff and sediment from reaching the water. The tall native grasses also are a great place for turkey poults and deer fawns to be raised. Although these projects may be labor intensive, they don’t have to cost much money,” Lupardus explained. And the benefit is tremendous.
America’s Crossroads is home to many wildlife species including deer, turkeys, grouse, waterfowl and songbirds. When the NWTF funds projects like those listed above, all wildlife wins not just wild turkeys.