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Help boost wild turkey habitat with your ranch management choices

Regenerative ranching and grazing practices promote the plant diversity wild turkeys need to thrive on your land. As populations decline, they need our help.

For the majority of the last 50 years, wild turkeys served as a great North American comeback story. Populations went from nearly non-existent to covering every part of the contiguous United States. Until recently.

“Turkeys were the great success story for wildlife departments all across the nation,” says Josh Gaskamp, Noble Research Institute regenerative ranching advisor and manager. But today, many wild turkey populations, particularly those in the Southern Great Plains, are in steep decline. The “why” is unclear, but theories include loss of habitat, disease and climate events – both drought and excessive rain.

Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska – states that boasted big turkey numbers and the associated recreational opportunities over the past several decades – have seen wild-turkey populations declining up to 50% in the past 15 years, according to state wildlife agencies. As these population numbers drop, so have hunting bag limits, tag numbers and even hunting seasons. Kansas canceled its 2023 fall season after its wild turkey population hit a 15-year low.

Researchers in these states and others have launched studies into why turkey production has taken such a dive. A joint study by Oklahoma State University and Texas A&M seeks a comprehensive understanding of the turkeys’ nesting behavior, reproductive success and survival of different life stages to determine if a decline is occurring.

What ranchers and landowners can do

There are ways ranchers and landowners can work to enhance turkey habitat in order to develop or improve a hunting enterprise while at the same time pursuing their regenerative ranching goals.

“They are an economic driver,” Gaskamp says of wild turkeys, “not just for the value of a hunting or recreational enterprise, but also in increasing the overall value of your land.”

Fortunately, wild turkeys are generalists when it comes to habitat requirements. There’s not one specific type of environment they need to survive, he says, but there are specific requirements they have at different life stages.

Four management tips to improve turkey habitat

If a regenerative ranch management approach that is good for both livestock grazing and gobblers is your goal, keep these management tips in mind.

1. Diversity demands disturbance. One of the primary ways to increase the diversity that wildlife and healthy soils need to thrive is controlled disturbances. Intentional disturbance followed by adequate rest and recovery creates opportunities for cool- and warm-season annual plants to fill the mosaic of successional stages.

“Disturbance – events like grazing, but not overgrazing; fire, but not all at once – reverts land to earlier successional states, which allows for forbs to come in,” Gaskamp says. “Forbs have flowers, which attracts insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers. That’s what young poults need to eat until they mature and shift their diets to more grain.”

2. Don’t forget your riparian areas. Historically, many conservation-minded ranchers and land managers have received the message that water-rich riparian areas are a ‘do-not-disturb’ zone. This hands-off approach can lead to a thick, unruly understory that may do more harm than good. Rather, Gaskamp suggests aiming for targeted management to enhance habitat on riparian areas while also increasing land utilization and efficiency.



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