National Wild Turkey Federation works to restore Texas land

This NWTF map indicates the part of the country where invasive species encroach on native prairie land, home to many grassland birds. Courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation

By Courtney Sosnowski | Reporter

Along the Texas highway, drivers may admire the endless acres of prairie land that roll by. Although the amber waves of grain may look effortless, healthy and prosperous grassland is not always a simple work of nature.

The National Wild Turkey Federation is working on a project to preserve Texas native prairie lands while still favoring hunters. This five year project will benefit grassland birds such as the northern bobwhite, Rio Grande wild turkeys and eastern wild turkeys. The National Wild Turkey Federation works with governmental organizations and private land owners to help restore land so that it can be as productive as possible.

The National Wild Turkey Federation district biologist Gene T. Miller explained that the ideal prairie land has multiple species of grass and dozens of species of wild flowers. However, urbanization, ranching and hunting take a toll on the land. This project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020, will address the threat of invasive red cedars. Invasive species are apt to spread and overtake other plants.

“Left untreated, Eastern red cedar tends to be invasive in upland prairies and in riparian (stream) zones, and degrades wildlife habitat by altering the native plant community as they become thicker in density and larger in size, crowding out what is supposed to be there and holding voluminous amounts of water,” Miller said.

Miller further explained that many areas in Texas are pyric, meaning that the land depends on fire to restore natural processes. Once invasive species are mechanically removed, the National Wild Turkey Federation or partner organizations can treat land with prescribed fire, and prescribed grazing/rest to move it back toward reaching its full potential. Miller says many do not expect fire to be a good thing for an ecosystem.

“[Civilization is] just so large and so big and the countryside has gotten so big and we have removed fire from the land,” Miller said. “It seems normal to citizens today who don’t understand the ecology of these parts.”

Southlake junior Josh Sommerhalder frequently hunts on his family’s land in Texas.

“Conservation is like a byproduct of hunting because through hunting you’re going to want to improve your land first and foremost,” Sommerhalder said. “If your land doesn’t have the vegetation needed, it’s not going to bring the animals you want.”

In Texas, over 95 percent of land is privately owned, so the National Wild Turkey Federation helps provide resources to incentivize land owners to care for land, as well as coordinate with their local expertise on projects such as this one. Sommerhalder helps keep his family’s land in good condition for hunting.

“There are certain things we plant that will bring in, say, turkeys because they like to eat it, and it gives them a place to eat without worry. It’s not some place we hunt on the property. It’s like a no-touch zone. You don’t go anywhere near it, it’s just a safe haven. A lot of conservation is creating good habitat for them,” Sommerhalder said.

The National Wild Turkey Federation simultaneously promotes hunting heritage and land conservation nationally. At the time of its founding in 1973, approximately 1.5 million wild turkeys roamed North America. Since then, that number has peaked at 7 million, according to their website. In addition to preserving millions of acres around the United States, the National Wild Turkey Federation has a 10-year goal of recruiting 1.5 million hunters, and making more land hunt-accessible.