What do wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and monarch butterflies have in common? The likely answer is they all have wings, making them capable of flight. However, thanks to a unique wildlife conservation partnership in southcentral Pennsylvania, they also collectively stand to benefit from native pollinator plantings that will provide valuable food and cover, hopefully allowing each of these species to soar to new heights.
As a result of an NWTF-initiated grant and willing partners, 210 acres on Franklin County’s Letterkenny Army Depot were cleared of overgrown invasive species and planted via no-till drill with a diverse assortment of native wildflowers and other beneficial forbs.
This newly restored grassland and pollinator habitat will provide an important protein source for brooding turkeys. It also affords aerial protection and ample seed forage for recovering bobwhite quail, plus offers vital sanctuary for monarch butterflies along their migratory pathway.
Funding for the two-year project came via a $100,000 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinators Conservation Fund grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. NWTF District Biologist Mitchell Blake, who wrote the grant, saw it as a unique opportunity to benefit many wildlife species in one comprehensive project since the Pennsylvania Game Commission had already identified the grounds of Letterkenny, an 18,000-acre federal air and missile defense facility, as a Bobwhite Quail Focus Area.
As part of the PGC’s comprehensive plan to restore quail to the Keystone State, intensive management through prescribed fire and overstory tree removal was already taking place to establish suitable grassland habitat. Once specific requirements for nesting, brood rearing and overhead cover are met, the plan calls for trapping and transferring wild quail from partner states to reestablish populations in the focus area.
Converting neglected forest to warm-season grass, forbs, legumes and woody cover with ground-level openings takes resources, including time, money, manpower and a collective effort of willing participants who understand these unique ecosystems.
Blake attended a key stakeholder meeting when the plan initially launched, reflecting on his years spent doing graduate-level turkey habitat research in Georgia and Florida, states where quail thrive. He recognized a common thread between the species.
“Turkeys are an umbrella species,” he said. “If you’ve ever been to places where quail are the focus species for overall management goals, there are phenomenal turkey hunting opportunities that go with it. They thrive along with them.”
Knowing the PGC’s quail project needed creative funding ideas, and that turkeys would also benefit from the habitat work to restore grassland cover, Blake and the NWTF partners jumped at the opportunity to secure a conservation grant that could move the plan to fruition.
“Monarchs rely on milkweed, and they need lots of it in certain key checkpoints of connectivity along their migratory flyway, including right here in Pennsylvania,” Blake explained. “Letterkenny had enough acres and a large enough scope for the project to be successful, plus a dedicated natural resource department staff, knowledgeable partners and a robust volunteer network willing to help with the habitat work.
“The grant essentially enabled us to purchase about $70,000 in seed, as well as fund the transformative work necessary to provide diversity within the management units,” Blake added. “Planting 210 acres with 5 pounds per acre of a rich pollinator mix of more than 20 plant species is costly, but the blend will benefit countless species of wildlife. It will serve monarchs and other pollinators, while simultaneously giving quail and grassland bird species refuge. Turkeys reap the rewards as well.”
When Letterkenny was established as an Army Depot in the 1940s, much of the property consisted of old farmsteads taken by eminent domain. While some agricultural leases — mostly hayfields — were maintained throughout its tenure, considerable landscape went through natural stages of succession during nearly eight decades of sitting idle. The result was a poorly formed forest with low-quality trees and an explosion of invasive species.
To restore the management areas to grassland habitat, crews first used mechanical treatment. A forestry mower with a giant mulching head removed the overstory and chipped autumn olive, honeysuckle and other undesirables into woody debris. Next, they treated the mowed stems with herbicide to prevent regrowth, following up with a preemergent herbicide to stop the annual germination of seeds.
Woody debris was left on site. Once dry, it provided just enough fuel to run a successful prescribed fire, worked in tandem by the PGC, Letterkenny land managers and volunteers. Where bare soil existed, warm season grasses were strategically broadcast-seeded. This new growth would later help carry controlled burns to other areas, a demonstration of adaptive management techniques by the team.
Managers followed prescribed fire with broadcast and spot herbicide treatments to eradicate regenerating invasive species. Pollinator mix was seeded in multiple locations, but in some areas, native grasses and forbs were allowed to emerge naturally. Tree canopy removal in those areas, amazingly, revealed still-intact native seedbeds of forbs and grasses. Wild bergamot and butterfly milkweed, seemingly dormant since the 1940s, sprouted from the soil in brilliant colors, proving the plants’ remarkable potential once released.
The grant term concluded last June, but this project’s returns will blossom for years to come as perennial pollinators take root and spread their seeds for future generations.
“The benefits of pollinator plantings are many,” Blake said. “It adds to ecosystem diversity. It increases the number of insects (for wild turkeys to feed upon). Seeds drop in late summer or early fall providing a valuable food source. The pollinators these plants attract offer a rich protein source for both brooding turkeys and quail in the spring. There are dusting locations in bare patches of sun-exposed soil. The list goes on.”
Still, the work is far from finished. Management areas require ongoing attention to maintain the grassland habitat. Regular burning, knocking back woody competition and controlling invasive species is vital.
But the effort is well worth it as butterflies, bees, moths, flies, grasshoppers and other insects are drawn to the area, and birds follow. Letterkenny’s breeding bird survey already noted an increase in peenting (the call made by) woodcock, and grassland bird species, such as the dickcissel. Perhaps even butterfly species of greatest conservation need, such as the regal fritillary or frosted elfin, might grace the native plants they desperately require within their home range once again.
The sky is the limit when ideas meet motivation, funding and action.
“It is awesome to see everyone working together for wildlife management,” Blake said. “Everyone teamed up to manage this on a landscape scale, integrating many different practices into one project that is going to benefit a plethora of species. We all try to do things for the species we care about most, but when you collaborate in a joint effort, you can have a major impact on an even grander scale. It is extraordinary.”