Why CRP works for wild turkeys, farmers, and sportsmen
The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners are celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’re devoting a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.
Many readers will be familiar with the phenomenal comeback of the wild turkey in America, but considering how prevalent these big birds are in some parts of the country today, some may be shocked to learn that turkeys were widely extirpated by the beginning of the 20th century. While no one conservation innovation is responsible for the wild turkey’s rebound, the Conservation Reserve Program continues to ensure that a profound amount of turkey habitat is not lost or converted to crops.
Talking Turkey Restoration
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, wild turkey populations began to shrink not long after the first Europeans arrived in North America. Native wild turkeys (of which there are five distinct subspecies) were an important source of food for a growing population of settlers, who hunted the birds year-round without regulation. Meanwhile, vast northern forests were being cleared for agriculture, industry, and other societal needs. As a result, by 1920 the wild turkey had all but disappeared from 18 of the 39 states in its historic range, and by the 1930s the continental population was estimated at fewer than 30,000 birds—found only in the most rugged and inaccessible environments.
Thankfully, early conservation laws—such as the 1905 Lacey Act and the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act—and the creation of our National Forest System resulted in the slow restoration of the landscape, and wild turkey populations increased substantially as a result. Successful trap-and-transplant programs were launched mid-century to help accelerate population growth, which reached a high of nearly 7 million wild turkeys across North America. Today, wild turkeys are found in every U.S. state except Alaska and, including populations in Canada and Mexico, the game bird now occupies more miles of habitat than any other in North America.
Still, Threats Exist
NWTF estimates that 6,000 acres of wild turkey habitat is lost each day to the development of roads, homes, and industrial agriculture, and the overall population has shrunk from 7 million to about 6.2 million birds in recent years. While there are other downward pressures on wild turkey populations (lack of rainfall in the West, severe winters up north, and even the widespread presence of feral hogs in the South), loss of turkey habitat, often due to poor farm and forest management, is the biggest threat to the gobbler’s success.
As we’ve explained before, rising prices for commodity crops, like corn, have motivated landowners to farm their old Conservation Reserve Program acreage and other marginal lands, in order to increase production. These marginal farmlands frequently include prime turkey habitat full of brushy cover and a variety of food sources. Once converted, a heavily-managed soybean field is no place to raise a brood.
Whereas today’s farmland is overly managed for production, forested land tends to be under managed for a turkey’s habitat needs: The amount of logging and thinning in many forests has decreased, which can result in a too-thick understory of young trees and invasive plants—once again, unsuitable habitat for turkey nesting, brooding, and roosting.
Wild turkey habitat is at risk not just because it’s disappearing by the acre—the acreage that does exist is frequently a victim of neglect.
CRP Can Help!
The home range of a wild turkey flock varies from 350 acres to more than 60,000 acres. Flocks need space to roam and a mixture of habitat components like fresh water, food, and diverse cover. In some areas of the country, it may seem impossible for one property to offer this much habitat, but landowners enrolling as few as 10 acres in CRP can provide crucial habitat support to wild turkeys. Just one component—like a CRP food plot—needs to be present on the land, as long as adjacent lands can address the others—water and cover. Even a few acres of CRP here and there, along stream beds, utility rights-of-way, or farm fields bordering forests, can help support habitat connectivity in fragmented rural areas.
In other parts of the country, where landowners are able to enroll vast parcels of land in the program, CRP has helped to convert large fields of production agriculture, like cotton in the Southeast, into bottomland timber forests or permanent native grasslands. These CRP areas make for excellent hunting grounds (with landowner permission, of course), especially when properly managed as part of a business plan. For instance, today, the commercial harvesting of southeastern CRP pine stands planted 20 years ago is increasing the value of those forests to wild turkeys.
Additionally, the slow-but-steady return of fire to CRP is a boon to turkeys and other wildlife. It has long been taboo to intentionally set fire to the landscape, even as part of a conservation management plan, but prescribed and rotational burning can clear downed trees from the forest understory, open the forest floor to promote new growth, control for invasive species, and help to diversify the number of native grasses, forbs, legumes, and shrubs on the ground. In many cases, landowners in CRP can receive cost-share funding to implement prescribed burns and other invaluable management practices.
As untouched native savannahs and forests give way to working landscapes, the importance of CRP to the wild turkey will continue to grow in importance. By enrolling in the program, landowners can help add habitat to the landscape and better manage their own private lands for wild turkeys, deer, and other game species.
‘Dead Turkeys Don’t Lie’
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find comprehensive, quantifiable data on the impacts of CRP for wild turkeys, but one wildlife biologist put it succinctly when he said, “I’m like the old fellow from East Texas, in that ‘I ain’t got no data, but I know what I’ve seen,’ and dead turkeys do not lie.” Here’s hoping that CRP continues to work for wild turkeys and wild turkey hunters, far into the future.