Clint Wirick of the US Fish and Wildlife Service recounts an impressive story of wild turkey conservation in southern Utah.
Partners: NWTF, NWTF Utah State Chapter, US Fish and Wildlife Service Partner Program, Utah State University, Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife, Watershed Restoration Initiative of Utah and Grand-Staircase Escalante Partners.
To start off transparent, I’m not a turkey biologist, I’m not an upland game biologist, and only started hunting turkeys late in my adulthood, but if you’re here to read a good story about curious conservationists and landowners in one of the most unique areas of our country that wild turkeys inhabit, then stay.
I probably need to restore my legitimacy as the author of this article a bit after that introduction. In my day job, I run a program for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that works with private landowners who want to do good things for land and wildlife. It’s called the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. I am a wildlife biologist specializing in habitat restoration and building partnerships around conservation issues. Sometimes I pinch myself because I’m really living my childhood dream. I also love turkeys and turkey hunting. I didn’t discover this love until about 12 years ago, but now it’s a passion of mine, and whenever my job and my love of turkeys can mix, I jump at the chance.
With the introductions out of the way, let’s get to the story. As with any good story, this one has a super cool setting, an interesting plot, a conflict that needs action, and sets up a sequel.
Our story takes place in and around what might be the eighth wonder of the world in my opinion, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. This place is epic. Slotted canyons: narrow, winding, winding paths carved into the rock by water and wind over millennia. Vast desert plateaus covered with grasses, flowers, shrubs and junipers beautifully framed by broken cliffs – a kind of natural cathedral.
Today, the town of Escalante is the heart of the area, with a cultural mix of dusty, beat-up pickup trucks and visiting Subarus. Agriculture and tourism are what keep this place alive economically. However, what really is the mother of all life here is the wet artery of the Escalante River. A desert river, free from modern dams. One of the last free flowing rivers in the American West. From above, the Escalante River is a ribbon of green vegetation carved deep into the oranges and reds of the desert sandstone.
If you’re wondering what all this talk about the desert Southwest has to do with turkey habitat, you’re not alone. This place is not your typical wild turkey. But wild turkeys thrive here. The river is a ribbon of life that crosses a hostile environment. Like many wildlife species here, the river is a life support.
The plot of the story is as follows: the Escalante River had been invaded by non-native trees over the last few decades, mainly Russian olive trees. Sparing you all the ecological minutiae, the moral of the Russian olive story is this: it became the dominant species in the river, overtaking native vegetation and creating a situation where thick masses of this invasive tree were the only thing growing. . The native cottonwoods, willows, buffalo berries, Indian ricegrass, primroses, and sedges were disappearing and being replaced by thick, dark Russian olive forests with nothing underneath. It was also changing the chemistry of the soil and water, a true ecological enemy.
A group of conservationists, landowners, and government agencies got together around 2009 and decided to do something about the Russian Olive Disaster on this last great free-flowing river in the American Southwest. Since then, the Russian olive tree has been removed from most of the 87-mile river corridor, making way again for flourishing native vegetation.
Our conflict was this: what will removing the Russian olive tree do to the hundreds of wild turkeys that inhabit the desert? There were two schools of thought: 1.) people feared that removing the Russian olive would be bad for turkey populations, especially in the winter, since some hypothetical Russian olives are an important winter food. 2.) Landowners were concerned that wild turkeys would cause more damage to crops (mainly alfalfa) in farm fields adjacent to the river if the Russian olive tree was removed as a food source.
As a biologist, I had my answers based on what I knew about habitat-wildlife interactions. My opinion was that, in the long term, removing the Russian olive tree for a diverse native habitat was much better for the turkeys for several reasons that we don’t need to go into here.
The problem was that there was no research to back up these claims. Data explaining the effects on wild turkeys when river corridor habitat was converted from one thing to another in a desert were simply non-existent. The situation here is so unique that it is like a unicorn turkey.
With our conflict established, it was time to act. We wanted to be able to give answers backed up with some science. Our solution was to gather the best equipment we could, ask for money, and put some tracking devices on the turkeys.
At first, it was kind of funny. None of us had done this before. We had a hard time catching birds and figuring out how to hook up GPS efficiently, effectively, and comfortably, but we ended up getting really good at it. We apologize to the first birds for treating you too long ha ha. Using this GPS technology, the turkeys told us a lot about themselves through their movements and behavior.
Here are some of the findings of this first-of-its-kind research:
- The elimination of the Russian olive made not affect the rest of turkeys during the winter. Turkeys selected large cottonwoods in the river corridor near farmland, regardless of whether or not the Russian olive trees had been removed.
- The Russian removal of olives made not causing females to stop using an area for the winter, possibly meaning Russian olive is not a critical winter food resource.
- During the summer, the turkeys exhibited both Merriam’s and Rio Grande behavior. Some migrated many miles into the forested elevations of Boulder Mountain, as would be expected of Merriam’s. Others stuck to the lowland desert river corridor, as was to be expected from Rio.
- Females remaining in lowland desert river corridors are likely to be positively affected by Russian olive removal because literature suggests that Russian olive removal creates better habitat for breeding and sheltering By opening up the forest floor, creating woody debris and increasing shrubbery, flowers, and attracting more insects.
- Anecdotal observations of groups of turkeys by researchers, technicians, and wildlife biologists showed that turkeys used areas treated with Russian olive. Drawing inferences from the observations demonstrates that the removal of the Russian olives did not have a negative impact on the turkeys.
Three plot scenarios would make a great sequel and continuation of this story:
1. Genetic research to understand what and who these birds really are. We caught Merriam, Rio and hybrid look-alikes. We also had birds exhibiting both Merriam and Rio behaviors.
2. We need to observe the nesting and breeding success of birds that nest at the bottom of the river where the Russian olive tree was extracted.
3. Lastly, we really need to better understand crop damage, actual or perceived. Our study did not really answer this question for landowners. Future studies to do so would be a positive step toward alleviating the perceived and actual conflicts associated with wild turkeys in the Southwest.