Photo by Tyler Donaghy.

August 2, 2021

Improving Wild Turkey Habitat Through the Illinois Habitat Incentive Program

Throughout Illinois, forest management is lacking on many privately owned properties, most often due to the costly and labor-intensive management required to maintain a healthy forest. Ecologically, the lack of management has led to an increase in invasive species and stagnation of forests due to overstocking.

To combat the lack of forest management, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) partnered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to create the Illinois Habitat Incentive Program (HIP). The goal of HIP was to provide cost share assistance to private landowners to help fulfill their forest management goals. Overall, the program was designed to help to restore and maintain the native oak-hickory ecosystem and wildlife habitat within the State of Illinois.

In 2019, NWTF applied for a grant from IDNR’s Habitat Stamp and was awarded $409,999. NWTF provided $480,805 in matching funds through private donations, the Illinois NWTF State Chapter Super Fund and in-kind contributions.

A sun-dappled forest during the summer.
This pre-Forest Stand Improvement (FSI) picture shows a dense mid-story canopy of primarily of undesirable soft hardwood species (maples, elms, ash, hackberry, etc.) under the dominate overstory. In such situations, little sunlight reaches the forest floor and, in some such instances, competition is high and resources are limited. Overall, in most such situations, timber growth is slow and mast production is limited. Photo courtesy of Chase Seals.

A portion of the HIP grant provided funding support for three NWTF foresters to provide technical assistance to private landowners throughout the state: Cody Widner in the Driftless Area of northwest Illinois; Stacy Lindemann in the Illinois and Kaskaskia River Basins of central Illinois; and Chase Seals in the Shawnee Hills of southern Illinois.

NWTF foresters helped private landowners implement their forest management plans, overseeing all aspects of program delivery from start to finish. The most common forest management activities used in HIP were invasive species control, forest stand improvement (FSI), hardwood tree planting and prescribed fire. These activities are important for the current and future success of wild turkeys and many other wildlife in Illinois and across the nation.

Non-native, invasive species are plants that are not native to the state and, in some instances, not native in the United States. These species often outcompete valuable native vegetation, prohibit oak-hickory regeneration, and create a dense thicket underneath the forest canopy. Such infestations cause a reduction in available food for wild turkeys and other wildlife. Species such as bush honeysuckle also create thickets that inhibit visibility and even movement of wild turkeys. When food and movement is limited, turkeys will avoid areas they would otherwise occupy. White-tailed deer usage of these areas often is limited to travel corridors. Many non-game species are displaced as a result of significantly reduced habitat quality.

Using FSI to restore open woodlands is essential for the success of wild turkeys and many other game and non-game species because it allows landowners to reduce the basal area (the average amount of area occupied by timber per acre) of their forest, thus, promoting oak-hickory growth, mast production, and regeneration of both an herbaceous ground layer as well as the future forest. This helps to improve overall forest health while providing more food and cover for wildlife.

Hardwood tree plantings are sometimes the only way to re-establish the oak-hickory component many forests have lost. Oak and hickory forest types dominated our landscape historically and, when restored and maintained as an open woodland, this habitat provides one-stop-shopping for turkeys and many other species of wildlife.

A open forest with sunlight on the forest floor.
Following Forest Stand Improvement (FSI), the mid-story only contains desired crop trees (oaks, hickories, common persimmon, black cherries and black walnut). More sunlight reaches the forest floor, leading to an increase in herbaceous vegetation within the stand that will increase wildlife habitat. Competition has been greatly reduced. In the years following FSI, timber growth and mast production should increase. Photo courtesy of Chase Seals.

Prescribed fire is one of the most cost-effective management tools available to landowners. Prescribed fire is beneficial to wild turkeys by providing an immediate food source following the fire. Turkeys will flock to a prescribed fire to utilize the roasted seeds and insects easily found across the burn area. In addition, prescribed fire is a great tool to reset herbaceous vegetation within a forest and to help weed out undesirable soft hardwood species, such as maples and elms. Besides the benefits to wild turkeys listed above, this tool is essential for maintaining the proper habitat for various songbird species, including warblers, nuthatches and vireos.

How HIP Worked

After an NWTF forester was contacted, an on-site property inspection was performed to validate the timber stand conditions. Even sites with prior management plans were reassessed to address the level of invasive species present. After this inspection, the property was scored and ranked based on a set of criteria that included its location in a NWTF or IDNR focal landscape, whether it had a current forest management plan, and the landowner’s willingness to actively manage the property. Properties and funding awards for proposed habitat improvement work were prioritized based on total rankings.

Once a landowner was accepted, the foresters created an agreement packet that outlined the designated work, treatment maps and other plans. Only after a landowner signed off on the project could work begin. Landowners could undertake the work themselves, with help provided in identifying invasive species, undesirable tree species (maples, elms, etc.) and desirable tree species (oaks, hickories, etc.). Alternatively, landowners could opt to contract the work out, selecting from a list of IDNR-approved contractors.

Throughout the project, Natural Resources Conservation Service job specifications were used to grade the work. A final inspection occurred after the project was completed to ensure it passed all criteria, at which point the NWTF forester submitted the paperwork to reimburse the landowner as outlined in the agreement.

Landowners often had multiple goals for managing their property, among them a desire to create more inviting habitat for turkeys, deer and other wildlife. Other typical objectives included creating riparian buffers, protecting soil and water quality, restoring native plant communities, and improving forest productivity. The habitat incentive program concluded June 30, 2021, after helping 56 landowners complete forest management on their properties and impacting 2,072 acres throughout 23 counties.

With many folks expressing growing concern over declining turkey populations, the kind of work enabled by programs such as HIP is essential for the conservation and preservation of wild turkeys. Hopefully such efforts can be expanded in the future.

Chase Seals is a forester and wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. The outdoors has been an essential part of his life since he was little and he is honored to be able to work outdoors for his career.

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