By Ross Melinchuk
NWTF Vice President of Conservation
The National Wild Turkey Federation was formed in 1973 to help restore wild turkeys. Thanks to the efforts of state/federal/provincial agencies, corporations, private landowners and passionate NWTF volunteers and staff, wild turkey populations throughout North America have been restored from a historic low of about 200,000 to nearly 6.5 million birds today. The NWTF’s Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative is now focused on maintaining those healthy, sustainable and huntable wild turkey populations for generations to come. An important part of doing that is active habitat management, which includes the use of prescribed burning or prescribed fire.
Unfortunately, many blame poor reproduction and observed declines in hunter harvest on the use of prescribed fire, particularly burns conducted during the growing season, which coincides with the spring nesting season for wild turkeys. While the loss of wild turkey nests to prescribed fire is a legitimate concern, a majority of wild turkey research shows very few turkey nests are lost directly because of springtime burns. Research suggests that hens prefer nesting in areas that have been burned within the past two years and not in high numbers in unburned areas because the habitat is too thick. For the few nests that are lost due to habitat management activity, predation or even weather-related events, it’s important to note that hens may re-nest up to three times.
Prescribed fire greatly improves nesting and brood-rearing habitat, both population-wide benefits that exceed the small-scale loss of individual nests. When conducting active management over a large area, wildlife managers must have a vision for how the work they are doing today leads to the ideal conditions for plant and animal populations to thrive in the future. Prescribed fire is one of the primary tools used to create and improve habitat for wild turkeys and other species that depend on young-growth or early successional habitat. Without fire, the least expensive and most efficient management tool we have available, maintaining current turkey populations would be much more difficult and expensive. As such, the NWTF strongly supports the use of prescribed fire to achieve habitat management objectives that will create ideal habitat for wild turkeys.
In general, smaller-sized burns, on a 2-3 year frequency, with a mix of timing between dormant and growing seasons are best for wild turkeys because this technique creates a true mosaic of habitat in various stages of growth. That is a best-case scenario, but one that many land managers cannot realistically implement or maintain. Private landowners typically have the most authority and latitude on how they use prescribed fire on their own lands; however, most state and federal agencies must consider multiple users and objectives for the properties they manage. Another major consideration is the scale at which these agencies must work and the available resources (money, time and staff) they have to work with at any given time. Using prescribed fire on 50 acres is very different compared to tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres that must be burned annually to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
The introduction of anti-fire messaging in the early 1900s led the public to believe that fire of any kind was bad, and, as a result, the use of prescribed burning dropped dramatically. More recently, concerns regarding liability, lack of training, air quality and public perception have further limited the use of prescribed fire. Now, a majority of our forests have become overgrown and do not provide the ideal mix of habitat for wild turkeys to live and reproduce. These conditions also have dramatically increased the risk and severity of devastating wildfires that lead to the loss of life, personal property and wildlife habitat. Such catastrophic wildfires can also cost taxpayers millions of dollars in fire suppression efforts.
Prescribed fire is an art as much as it is a science and it involves a complicated mix of environmental conditions that can change within minutes and certainly within the time span that a burn is conducted. Humidity, wind speed and direction, smoke dispersion, air temperature and other parameters are constantly changing and adjustments must be made accordingly. The timing of controlled burns and how they are applied influence how habitats respond and how wild turkeys use that habitat. Seasonality (time of year), intensity (how hot), ignition type (how it is lit), frequency (how often) and scale (size) of the burns all depend on the specific property and the desired management objectives. No two burns ever behave the same, and, sometimes, there will be unintended consequences, such as areas that burn more or less than planned. This is an expected trade-off that still produces better habitat than not using prescribed fire at all.
The NWTF was established as a science-based organization and continues to apply science in our decision making. Knowledge gained with new technology, experience and research, as well as on-the-ground observations, often changes how management decisions are made. As such, landscape-level management decisions should not be based on a single research project, but rather, decisions need to be based on a full body of research over time and the measured results of implementation in the field.
The NWTF will continue to work with and support our numerous partners to ensure they are making sound management decisions and implementing active habitat management according to the best available science and current, best-management practices. Keeping in focus the best interests of wild turkeys, turkey hunters, and conservationists, alike, has always been and will continue to be the NWTF’s priority.