Wild turkeys are a very resourceful and resilient species that thrives in a variety of habitat types across North America. Highly adaptable, wild turkeys regularly cope with a wide array of environmental conditions ranging from simple variation in weather conditions to significant natural disasters. In the southeastern United States, the most common natural disaster comes in the form of hurricanes. Hurricane damage most often includes flooding via storm surge or heavy rains and extreme wind along the hurricane’s path. Both can cause long-term damage to wild turkey habitats. Recently, Hurricane Laura affected a wide swath of western Louisiana from the Gulf Coast to the Arkansas border. Portions of the Kisatchie National Forest and the Fort Polk and Peason Ridge wildlife management areas, where a long-term collaborative research project between the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, U.S. Department of Defense and the School of Renewable Natural Resources at Louisiana State University is in progress, were directly in the path of Hurricane Laura. This enabled researchers to evaluate how the areas used by wild turkeys were impacted by Hurricane Laura.
One form of hurricane damage is flooding. Short-term flooding that lasts a couple days does not usually have a direct effect on wild turkeys, as most turkeys can avoid the flooding by moving to higher ground or seeking refuge in treetops. Nest loss due to hurricanes is infrequent because most hurricanes along the Gulf Coast occur between June and October, which is well after most of the wild turkey nesting season. For example, in 2020, over 80% of nests were initiated by June 1. While coastal flooding is a significant threat during hurricanes, upland flooding in areas similar to the Kisatchie National Forest is usually short-lived. Hurricane Laura dropped 4 to 5 inches of rain over several hours, but the water had dissipated across most areas outside of hardwood riparian corridors by the next day.
The second, and likely greater cause of damage in upland systems during hurricanes, is wind. Even the largest trees begin to break or uproot in winds over 90 mph, and the Kisatchie National Forest study area saw consistent gusts from 90 to 110 mph during Hurricane Laura. Hurricane Laura passed through our study areas around noon on August 27, so wild turkeys were on the ground when the storm hit. Interestingly, in past studies there has been evidence of direct mortality due to hurricanes resulting in approximately 5% of tagged birds being killed during hurricanes, and evidence suggests that the turkeys were crushed by falling trees or branches, perhaps while on the roost at night. However, in Louisiana, we were monitoring 29 wild turkeys during the storms, and none died as a direct result of Hurricane Laura.
What is of significantly more importance for wild turkeys is the long-term effects of the damage to the forest and the loss of habitat due to Hurricane Laura. Reports from the AgCenter indicated that Vernon Parish experienced approximately $360 million in timber losses across 160,000 acres, and that the region may have lost 750,000 acres costing $1.1 billion in damage due to Hurricane Laura. The loss of upland, fire-maintained pines will impact wild turkey nesting ecology in the near term until timber removal and prescribed fire can be reapplied to the landscape. Additionally, the national forest saw significant damage to both riparian and upland hardwoods interspersed throughout the pine forests. Wild turkeys regularly use these hardwood stands, which provide diverse plant communities and hard mast. Finally, because of the significant amount of tree fall, we expect that movements by wild turkeys will change, as wild turkeys usually avoid areas that are difficult to walk through and areas where visibility is limited. The wide distribution of dead snags and fallen timber across the landscape, when combined with additional sunlight hitting the ground and the burst of vegetative growth that will follow, will likely cause wild turkeys to avoid heavily impacted areas for some time. The impact of Hurricane Laura was disastrous, but with ongoing management such as timber salvage operations, reforestation efforts and frequent prescribed burning by the USDA Forest Service, U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies, the negative short-term effects can be lessened. In fact, the affected area may become an even more diverse and attractive forest for wild turkeys in the future.
Chad Argabright is a graduate student in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources, Cody Cedotal is an upland game biologist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Bret Collier is an associate professor in the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources.