David Strickland can’t shake the image of wild turkey eggs lying scorched in a burned-out nest.
When federal forest managers intentionally set a fire to improve wildlife habitat and clear brush from the Francis Marion National Forest, Strickland says they also burned the turkey nest and the eggs inside.
Turkeys are top prey for hunters like Strickland, but some sportsmen worry that the birds they like to shoot will be harder to find if federal fire management programs aren’t reined in.
“They are burning the nests,’’ said Strickland, a Lowcountry resident who this spring launched a Facebook group dominated by discussion of intentional burns and wild turkeys. “There are a whole lot of low-nesting songbirds that are affected by this as well.’’
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Strickland’s concerns are part of a debate over how the Forest Service burns land to keep the woodlands healthy. Worried about dwindling turkey populations, some Lowcountry hunters say the service has become too aggressive with its burning programs.
Many controlled fires now are larger than they used to be and are set in spring and early summer, when turkeys mate and establish nests, instead of winter, a more traditional time to burn woodlands, critics say. The burning generally coincides with turkey hunting season in March, April and May.
But the Forest Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources have seen little evidence that controlled fires are burning up wild turkeys or other wildlife on public lands, such as the 260,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest in Berkeley and Charleston counties.
Intentionally set blazes – in some cases started by shooting small firebombs from helicopters into the forest – actually improve habitat for ground nesting birds such as wild turkeys, state and federal officials say. Perhaps more importantly, these controlled burns reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.
Even if a few birds are lost, more birds will benefit by having more of the open habitat they prefer, officials said. Openings in the forest spark the growth of plants that improve places for turkeys to forage and nest, biologists say.
“Some people think we fly around dropping balls every which way and creating this big plume of fire that surrounds animals – but that’s not the case,’’ said Brian Schaffler, fire management officer with the Forest Service in Columbia. “I’ve been doing this a long time .... in many parts of the United States for different agencies, and I have yet to see mass wildlife fatalities.’’
One scientific research project in Louisiana, where federal forests are burned as they are in South Carolina, didn’t find any nests or turkeys lost during controlled burns, according to a recent magazine article by the National Wild Turkey Federation, a sportsmen’s organization with headquarters in Edgefield. Ongoing research by the state DNR and others “has generally shown that the direct negative effects’’ of spring and summer burning on turkeys are small, said Tom Hughes, director of science and research with the Wild Turkey Federation.
Woodlands that look more like jungles contain enough vegetation to cause wildfires, said Schaffler and Johnny Stowe, who handles intentional burns for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Lighting fires and managing them clears the dense vegetation, leaving a parklike forest floor with less material that could ignite.
Without what is known as prescribed burning, vegetation would be so thick that massive fires could erupt near homes that border state and national forests, wildlife managers say. It’s a particular concern in Berkeley and Charleston counties near the Francis Marion National Forest, where thousands of homes border the preserve.
How fires can affect property was evident near Myrtle Beach in 2009. Wildfires fueled by dense underbrush raced across the landscape and destroyed 76 homes in Horry County, according to the Forest Service and the state Forestry Commission.
“We learned the hard way up in Horry County,’’ Schaffler said. “If we don’t burn, there are going to be wildfires.’’
Wild turkeys are among the most popular species hunted in South Carolina and in other parts of the South. They are crafty animals that are comparable in size to domestic turkeys, weighing 12 to 25 pounds. Many hunters say the wild birds are tastier to dine on than domestic turkeys.
The debate over burning practices in the South has intensified since wild turkey populations leveled off in the early 2000s and began dropping.
At one point about 15 years ago, wild turkey populations were estimated to be about 120,000 in South Carolina. But by 2009, the population had dropped to about 90,000, according to the Wild Turkey Federation. An array of factors, including habitat loss and too many female turkeys, might have contributed to the drop. Recent statistics indicate turkeys may be recovering in parts of South Carolina, but not in others.
Concerns about dwindling turkey populations are occurring at the same time the Forest Service plans to increase the amount of prescribed burning it conducts in the Francis Marion forest. The service now burns about 30,000 acres annually, but plans to increase that to 50,000 acres, with more burning during the spring and summer, according to the agency’s 2017 land management plan.
Strickland, whose Facebook group has more than 1,000 members, agrees that prescribed fires can improve wild turkey habitat.
But Strickland and others said fires set in April, May and June burn hotter than those done in the winter. When combined with large burns, sometimes of 1,000 acres, that’s dangerous for wild turkeys, Strickland said. He said the Forest Service is burning more large tracts of contiguous land than it once did – a point Schaffler disputed last week.
Strickland said he found evidence that a prescribed burn had barbecued one turkey last year. Strickland provided a photograph to The State newspaper showing a pile of bones and feathers on a charred patch of ground.
Another photograph showed a burned turkey chick half inside of an egg on blackened ground. Another photo showed two eggs smoked by fire, lying in a nest. All told, Strickland said he knows of five burned turkey nests this year in the Francis Marion, but there are likely more.
“Francis Marion National Forest conducts prescribed burning in ways that are not good for the wildlife of the forest, the long-term health of the forest, the service itself, or the public,’’ Tuffy Edwards, a longtime turkey hunter, wrote on Facebook.
In an interview last week with The State newspaper, Edwards said he’s concerned that the Francis Marion National Forest is more focused on restoring longleaf pines than it should be. “We should be embarrassed to see that specific area turned into one massive longleaf plantation,’’ he said.
The Forest Service’s Schaffler said fire is vital to the survival of longleaf pines, majestic softwoods found throughout the Francis Marion. Spring and summer fires, which are more effective at clearing vegetation, mimic lightning-generated fires that have been part of the southern landscape since the beginning of time, he and other fire managers say.
Schaffler said the Forest Service must manage its land for a variety of uses – not just for wild turkeys. Prescribed burning helps other species, such as endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, as well as amphibians and plants, he said.
“If we only burn for one reason, then we are not doing our job,’’ Schaffler said.