Louisiana Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014

Louisiana Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014
11 years old Tucker Jones killed this 17 pound turkey with 9.5 beard and 3/4 inch spurs..

Mississippi and Louisiana have plenty of turkeys.  According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, 2012's hatch was very good, and turkey populations around the state are on the upswing. The Louisiana turkey hunting situation is similar.

Luke Lewis is the regional wildlife biologist for the NWTF in Louisiana.  He said the situation in Louisiana is somewhat different from that in Mississippi.

"A lot of our state is water, and a good portion of Louisiana doesn't have the upland habitat that turkeys need for nesting and to bring off their young," he said.  "But we're still at the pinnacle of turkey numbers in our state."

In Louisiana, Lewis also is involved with the Longleaf Pine Initiative of the NRCS, and said much of the emphasis of the programs in Louisiana is on fire.

"The longleaf pine is a fire-evolved tree," he said.  "You can burn the trees beginning at year two.  What this does is remove woody competition and promote grasses, forbs and legumes."  These are exactly the plants that turkey hens need to nest raise poults in the spring.

In Louisiana the NWTF is all about helping landowners manage their property for turkeys and other wildlife.

"We have 17 people helping landowners write management plans and helping them under the NRCS EQIP program," Lewis said.  The EQIP program, he said, is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

"This is a cost share program where people can restore longleaf with a 75 percent cost share to do that," he said.  "We're working with the NRCS, LDWF, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to promote this program."  Lewis said currently 409 Louisiana landowners with about 18,000 acres, are enrolled.

"The Longleaf Pine Initiative, on both private and public land, moves the condition of that land toward habitat that is premium turkey habitat," he said.  "This year in Louisiana we will do at least 100 projects.  Some of these have to do with 'Save the Habitat Save the Hunt,' but quite a few of them are related to specific habitat work on our state WMAs and the wildlife refuges in our state."

Many of these projects involve prescribed burning and other means of working on the understory to make it more suitable for nesting and rearing habitats for turkeys.

"Part of what we're trying to do is to get the mid-story competition down to a level where it's more of a grass/forbs/legumes regime," Lewis said.  "What we're doing is basically managing the vegetation from your knees down."

As the NWTF and the state agencies work with private landowners to improve the habitat for turkeys, they also are improving the habitat for an array of others species.

"Turkeys, quail, doves, many songbirds, a lot of pollinators and whitetail deer all depend on early succession plants," Lewis said.  "It's a very simple concept, but sometimes landowners don't see it."

One of the most important tools biologists are using in the Longleaf Pine Initiative and in other turkey management programs is fire.

"Fire replicates a return to accessible vegetation on the ground," he said.  "We're also using herbicides to knock back the hardwood competition and encourage the native warm season grasses.  We also do quite a bit of supplemental planting."  One area where the NWTF is supporting these types of habitat manipulation is the Kitsachie National Forest.

"One of the things we're moving toward is stewardship contracting," Lewis said.  At its essence, in a stewardship contract the NWTF manages a tract of land to improve or restore habitat in exchange for something, such as the money from the sale of a timber contract on that property.  The net result of each stewardship contract is that NWTF improves a piece of property and at the same time takes in revenues needed to keep the effort going; it is a true win/win situation for everyone involved, including the turkeys.

"Throughout the Southeast, the national forests are blessed to have a lot of timber," Lewis said.  "We need to be careful about timber harvest on our national forest projects, because we don't want to create the appearance that we're only looking at timber generating income.  However, forest health is important, and sometimes there's a critical need to cut timber for both the timber stands and for wildlife."

When managers look at a tract holistically, Lewis said, sometimes they make a decision to "thin and burn timber." This means cutting selected trees or stands of trees, and then burning the understory to set back succession to the low-growing plants on which wildlife thrives.

"That concept, done correctly, can be implemented by both individuals and professional land managers," he said.  "When you thin and burn your landscape, you optimize both your timber and your wildlife populations."

An upcoming project, Lewis said, is on the Caney Ranger District of the Kitsachie National Forest.

"We're going to do things like fallow disc 20 miles of woods roads to encourage legumes," he said.  "We're going to be looking at restoring 100 acres of shortleaf pine.  We'll be burning about 5000 acres of that district annually, which means the installation of fire lanes.  We're going to be working on noxious plant control, as well as some aquatic invasive plant control, and mulching some wildlife openings for quail enhancement."

In central Louisiana, NWTF has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to help restore an 88-acre longleaf pine community on the Alexander State Forest.

"This is a demonstration area for private landowners to help educate them to manage their own land," Lewis said.

In eastern Louisiana, the NWTF is involved in a project on a tract of bottomland hardwoods that adjoins the Mississippi River floodplain.

"A lot of this land was cleared in the 1970s for soybean production because of the price of soybeans at the time," Lewis said.  "But much of the land is very low, and not suitable for farming, so now about 300,000 acres that have gone back into the Wetlands Reserve Program and were planted back to hardwood seedlings based on the soil type and the species needs of those trees."  These trees now are between 15 and 20 years old, he said.

"In about another 15 years, we're going to have about 300,000 acres that are suitable habitat for wild turkeys," Lewis said.  "It's a great restoration opportunity for our state." This is only one of a number of tracts that have been replanted in hardwoods and that in the future will become good turkey land that needs management; there are several million acres of WRP lands in the northern part of the state.

All of these projects — and many others — are aimed at improving habitat for turkeys.  The effects of these projects, however, go far beyond the birds.

"The ripple effect to other wildlife species — both game and non-game — is really good," Lewis said. "Early succession maintenance is a really strong part of wildlife diversity."

Turkey numbers are reasonably high in both Mississippi and Louisiana, but the NWTF and all the state agencies involved in turkey conservation are continuing to push for improved habitat and more birds.

"We're living in the best of times for wild turkeys in the state of Louisiana," Lewis said.  "Yet, we have to look at ways that we can continue to tweak the land to make it better for turkeys."

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