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Continued conservation efforts ‘critical’ to wild turkey populations in South Dakota

Each Thanksgiving, as many as

46 million turkeys are consumed

across the United States — plus countless pounds of potatoes, gallons of gravy and more.

And while the average American is most likely thinking about the turkey on their table, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) is thinking about the turkeys in the wetlands, prairies and Black Hills of South Dakota.

With a focus on restoring or enhancing turkey habitat across the United States, the NWTF has worked to improve the conditions of tens of millions of acres of land across the country over the past 50 years — including more than 63,000 acres in South Dakota since 2018.

Clayton Lenk

serves as the NWTF’s district biologist, focusing on the federation’s efforts in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. He said there are few words to describe how important those restoration efforts truly are.

“It really is critical. … Beyond just turkeys, there’s a lot of stacked benefits when you do riparian projects — there’s erosion control, soil health, flood mitigation, there’s all these different things that play into that riparian corridor,” Lenk said. “When you conserve or enhance it, it’s not just one species that benefits, it’s most of them.”

Turkeys live in 49 of the 50 states, with Alaska serving as the exception, Lenk explained with a laugh. At one point, the birds were so popular that they nearly became the official symbol of the United States, but lost by just one vote to the bald eagle.

In South Dakota, wild turkeys are typically broken up into two different sections, which Lenk referred to as Black Hills and Prairie. During a decade-long period from roughly 2004 to 2014, the nation’s wild turkey population began to decline, and turkeys in the Black Hills and Prairie weren’t immune.

“Whether it be weather, several wet years in a row, catastrophic wildfires, mountain lions, beetles, it’s really a mix of all sorts of stuff,” Lenk said. “It could be housing developments, a change from a natural meadow or forest to ag usage. It’s hard to narrow (the decline) down to one thing.”

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The distribution of wild turkeys in South Dakota.

Contributed / SDGFP

Lenk explained that wild turkeys have a few needs in their habitat that need to be met to ensure a longer, healthier life.

“In addition to wetland areas, turkeys really only survive in the plains because of these areas where there’s cottonwood galleries or oaks — or ponderosa pines in the Black Hills forest — where they have these branches they can roost in,” Lenk explained. “Those woodland areas need to be adjacent to some type of grassland or meadow where they’ll be out raising their poults. All of these things have to be a stone’s throw away to have a habitat area.”

By identifying which needs are lacking in a certain area, the NWTF, in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, can determine what types of projects they’d like to initiate to help restore or enhance existing habitat.

Wild Turkey - Lonnie Wiese.jpeg

A wild turkey sits atop some rocks after drinking from a pond in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Contributed / Lonnie Wiese

That could be anything from mowing certain areas of prairie, thinning out a densely wooded area, improving riparian habitat or controlling invasive species.

The NWTF shared data on nine different habitat restoration or enhancement projects already completed in South Dakota. Though not an all-inclusive list of the work completed in the state, those nine projects alone, each completed since 2018, improved more than 1,300 acres of land.

One ongoing project taking place in part in South Dakota is the NWTF’s Waterways for Wildlife initiative, which focuses on riparian improvements across the entirety of the Great Plains.

“It’s a riparian-focused landscape-level initiative that covers the Great Plains, from North Dakota and Montana all the way down to New Mexico and Texas, so a 10-state stretch,” Lenk explained. “It’s estimated that roughly 1.5% of the Great Plains is riparian habitat and that 80% of wildlife species use that 1.5% of habitat.”

With a vast number of species utilizing a slim amount of land, Lenk said the initiative focuses on increasing the amount of riparian habitat available for use.

“We’re putting a lot of focus on these riparian area projects because there are so many species — not only turkeys — that this is critical habitat for,” Lenk said. “If this habitat goes away, so do the species.”

As part of the Waterways for Wildlife initiative, the NWTF partnered up with the SDGFP, U.S. Forest Service and Rapid City Fly Fishers to restore and enhance three acres of land and one-and-a-half miles along Castle Creek near Hill City.


A cattle exclusionary fence was installed by the NWTF and SDGFP along Castle Creek near Hill City in an effort to restore a riparian habitat for wild turkeys. The fencing conserved three acres of land and 1.5 miles of stream.

Contributed / Kevin Woster via NWTF

The project focused on the repair and installation of cattle exclusion fencing around the creek in Kinney Canyon to allow the natural regrowth of native grasses and plant species. By doing so, soil reduction and erosion are reduced and the waterway remains cleaner for wildlife.

“We have quite a few of those types of projects because grazing and livestock are such a big part of the Great Plains,” Lenk said. “Essentially what it does is it takes that riparian corridor and removes it from what would be your typical pasture, and just by reducing the foot traffic from the water and stream banks allows the roots to grow a lot deeper.”

When livestock graze, Lenk said the roots of many grasses only extend a couple of inches into the ground. With unimpeded growth, the roots can extend as deep as 14 feet into the soil, improving a streambank’s resistance to erosion and sediment releases.

“You’re not having the sediments running down the stream anymore, and there’s no livestock trotting around in the water kicking up sediment, so the trout have this clean, cold water,” Lenk explained. “That’s where these riparian projects are so critical and helpful because you’re benefiting so many species.”

Conservation efforts such as that along Castle Creek are a major part of stabilizing the population of wild turkeys, Lenk said, noting that the bird’s numbers have improved in South Dakota’s Plains section and stabilized in the Black Hills region.

“There’s natural ebbs and flows with any population — look at deer, grouse, turkeys. They all have a natural cycle where they go up and then they go down,” Lenk said. “The prairie parts seem to be doing well, and anecdotally people say they’re seeing the birds more spread out. In the Black Hills, there were several years, five to six years ago, that saw declines, but every year over the last few years they’ve been considered stable.”

Those population increases aren’t specific to South Dakota, either.

In 1973, the turkey population in the United States was an estimated one million. Fast forward five decades and Lenk said those estimates have increased sevenfold.

“As of the most recent data we have, it’s pretty close to seven million today. Just in the last generation, the wild turkey is one of — if not the best — conservation success stories in the entire country,” Lenk said. “Where we’ve come in the last 50 years in terms of population is incredible.”

Adding details about the bird’s natural beauty, Lenk said everyone should care about the wild turkey as much as they care about the turkey they consume on Thanksgiving.

“[Conservation efforts] are critical, I’d say. We’re not a standalone fixer of problems, but it’s the understanding that we all have a vested interest in these areas,” Lenk said. “If people didn’t care, there probably wouldn’t be any turkeys in the Great Plains. They hold importance and beauty, and I think it’s an incredible thing.”

As the NWTF continues its Waterways for Wildlife initiative, at least five other riparian conservation projects are currently in the works, expected to restore or enhance more than 61,000 acres of South Dakota land.

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